NEW YORK (AP) — Iran should only play a role in international diplomatic efforts to end the violence in Syria if it withdraws support for President Bashar Assad's regime, Britain's Middle East minister said Thursday.
Alistair Burt told The Associated Press in an interview that Iran could only have credibility in efforts to press Damascus by withdrawing its backing for Assad.
"Until the Iranians change their position in relation to Syria and stop their active support of a regime that's killing its own people, it's difficult to take them completely seriously," he said, noting that several nations in the Middle East shared Britain's skepticism.
Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday he is developing a 12-nation group to work on developing a solution to Syria's crisis, though he declined to provide specifics on which countries may be involved or what steps the body might take.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has also invited Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to join a contact group aimed at ending the conflict, though the Saudis have not yet participated.
"We don't want to close any options off that might be helpful in the process, but we struggle to understand how someone so involved in supporting the regime, and therefore perpetuating the cycle of violence, can be part of the answer," Burt said, referring to Ahmadinejad.
Burt also said the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, must judge how other international efforts might combine with his own work — or whether they risk complicating his diplomatic efforts.
"If these other ideas can make a contribution, then that's a judgment for him. Our position is not to rule anything out that might be a help in these circumstances ... but our backing is for him and his mission," Burt said.
Assad's regime and its opponents are locked in a stalemate after 18 months of conflict which activists say has seen more than 30,000 deaths.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague met Thursday with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the violence and enter negotiations on a political transition.
The U.K. was continuing to "encourage Russia to recognize the dire state that the conflict has got to," consider what it might do to "hasten the end of the conflict," Burt said. He acknowledged that "up to now, it's been difficult to see any degree of change."
However, Burt insisted that nations must continue talks on the issue with Russia and China, as Syria's "tragedy would be compounded if the diplomacy stopped."
"Everyone can point to it and say 'Where is it going, where is there evidence of any success.' Granted. Understood," Burt said. "But the moment you stop talking, and say that there is no other alternative, then you make what it happening still worse."
A meeting on the General Assembly sidelines Friday of the Friends of Syria — a coalition which includes the United States, the European Union and the Arab League — will consider how to help Syria's fractured opposition do more to present a united front against Assad.
Burt said that though "opposition groups do come from different standpoints," there were tentative signs that they be becoming more willing to work together.
"Our message has been consistent. No-one is asking them to form a unified, single party — but to have a clear set of objectives addressed towards minorities and the people of Syria as to what they would do," he said. "What we hear is that they do understand the need to make more progress themselves."