Iran offers to host Syria crisis talks: foreign minister

DUBAI Sun Jul 15, 2012 10:37am EDT

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran is ready to host talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups, the Iranian foreign minister was quoted as saying on Sunday, but members of the opposition quickly rejected the offer.

The statement by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi appeared to suggest a possible shift in the Iranian leadership's approach. Iran has consistently supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's efforts to suppress a 17-month-long uprising.

Tehran has repeatedly accused Western and regional powers of meddling in Syria's internal affairs through backing extremist militant groups.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to sit down with the Syrian opposition and invite them to Iran," Salehi was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA). "We are ready to facilitate and provide the conditions for talks between the opposition and the government."

Iran, a Shi'ite Muslim power, has been a rare ally for Syria, led by members of a sect related to Shi'ite Islam. Tehran is vying with Sunni Gulf Arab states for predominance in the wider region.

Samir Nashir, an executive board member of the exile Syrian National Council, turned down the offer.

"We will not participate in any meetings or talks with the regime as long as Assad is in power. Assad does not need talks, he needs to go to the International Criminal Court for the massacres he's committed," he said.

"We will not speak to any mediators whether they are Iranian, Syrian or Russian."

Diplomats say Iran has been in indirect contact with some opposition members but analysts say the opposition views Tehran with much distrust, given its support for Assad's crackdown against anti-government protesters and armed opposition groups.

"There may be individuals who might consider dealing with them but this won't appeal to the broader group which has suffered badly during the crisis," a Western diplomat said.

Manhal Abu Bakr, an activist from the Syrian city of Hama, dismissed any Iranian mediation as "impossible."

"We see Iran and Russia as partners in killing us," he said.

SUPPORT FOR ANNAN

Iranian officials have voiced their support for peace envoy Kofi Annan's attempt to resolve the spiraling crisis that opposition activists say has left more than 17,000 people dead since the uprising began in March 2011.

Salehi praised Annan for mediating between all sides in a "fair and equitable" manner and repeated Iran's call for a domestic resolution, ISNA reported.

"We believe that the Syria issue must be resolved in a Syria-Syria way, and that nothing and no rule and no government should be imposed from outside," Salehi was quoted as saying.

Annan has emphasized the importance of Iran's involvement in resolving the crisis, though Western powers have firmly rejected the suggestion.

Salehi's comments follow two high-profile defections from the Syrian government and a massacre in the town of Tremseh, which opposition activists say left 220 people dead. The timing hints that Tehran may be trying to distance itself from the ongoing bloodshed.

The debate over Iran's support for Assad has also spilled into the public domain.

In an interview earlier this month with Iranian website Khabaronline, Iran's former ambassador to Lebanon and Jordan, Mohammad Ali Sobhani, offered rare criticism of Tehran's policies, saying it was only a matter of time before Assad lost power.

"If we had not supported Bashar unilaterally, today we would have been a more effective and more serious player," Sobhani was quoted as saying.

(Additional reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)

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