MOSCOW Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Iran must take part in a proposed international conference to end Syria's civil war, but that Western states wanted to limit the participants and possibly predetermine the outcome of the talks.
Conflicting comments from Russia and the West over Iran's role in the possible meeting have added to disagreements which already threaten to derail the conference proposed by Moscow and Washington last week.
"Among some of our Western colleagues, there is a desire to narrow the circle of external participants and begin the process from a very small group of countries in a framework which, in essence, would predetermine the negotiating teams, agenda, and maybe even the outcome of talks," Lavrov said in an interview posted on the Foreign Ministry website on Thursday.
Iran, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has welcomed the proposal and expressed hopes that it would be a part of the process.
Its desire to participate in a June 2012 meeting on Syria hosted by the United Nations in Geneva was a bone of contention between Washington and Moscow.
"One must not exclude a country like Iran from this process because of geopolitical preferences. It is a very important external player. But there is no agreement on this yet," Lavrov said in the interview given to a Lebanese television station.
The West is loath to see Iran, which has grown increasingly isolated on the international stage because of Western fears it is developing nuclear weapons, being at any such talks.
The meeting, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said would likely take place in early June, will aim to have the same global powers that attended the 2012 meeting, but this time include representatives of the Syrian government and opposition.
Last year the foreign ministers of the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members - Russia, the United States, China, France and Britain - all attended the Geneva talks along with Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Arab League head Nabil Elaraby and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
PROSPECTS FAR FROM CLEAR
With Syria's factional and sectarian rivalries more entrenched than ever, however, it is far from clear the warring parties are ready to negotiate with each other.
Most opposition figures have ruled out talks unless Assad and his inner circle are excluded from any future transitional government.
Lavrov also said Saudi Arabia, a foe of both Damascus and Tehran and leading backer of the rebel forces which did not participate in last year's meeting, should be present.
He added that he would not exclude any political opposition groups, but that "terrorist groups" like the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front had no place at the negotiating table.
He did not mention any of the other rebel groups that operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army.
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande told a news conference that despite an urgency to solve the crisis politically, Russia's arms sales to Syria proved that Assad's opponents needed to maintain military pressure.
France and Britain are trying to convince European partners to amend an arms embargo that would allow delivery to Syrian rebels. Russia has been one of Assad's biggest arms suppliers.
"While the Russians are accepting the idea of this conference they continue to give weapons to Bashar al-Assad's regime, so we need to have an attitude that balances that out," Hollande said.
A French official reiterated Paris' previously-stated stance that Iran could not be part of any talks.
"Iran cannot be part of it because it always tries to mix the Syria debate with the nuclear issue," the official said.
No venue has been confirmed but Kerry has talked of a "Geneva Two" meeting.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Writing By Thomas Grove; Editing by Mike Collett-White)