Iran for the first time will join international talks about Syria’s civil war later this week in Vienna, showing the Islamic Republic’s new-found stature since agreeing to a nuclear deal with world powers.
Russia invited Iran to join the talks, and Iran accepted Wednesday, bringing Syria’s two closest allies to the table in support of embattled President Bashar Assad, whose country is in the fifth year of a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced half the population.
The talks Thursday and Friday will involve about 12 countries, including the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which back Syria’s opposition. President Obama has said Syria’s conflict cannot be resolved if Assad stays in power.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that nations participating in this week’s meetings agree on the need for a political “transition away from Assad (that) preserves a united and secular Syria.”
“We agree on the right of the Syrian people to choose a leadership through free and transparent elections,” Kerry said in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Surely we can find a place where one man does not stand in the way.”
He said ending Syria’s civil war is a key component to U.S. policy to defeat the Islamic State militants threatening the entire Middle East. Kerry said Syrians should not have to choose between a dictator or terrorists.
Iran is a crucial ally to Assad by providing financial aid and forces it refers to as advisers. Russia in September launched airstrikes in Syria, saying it would target the Islamic State and other terror groups. But the U.S. and its allies say the airstrikes are aimed at Assad’s enemies.
If the U.S. and Tehran sit down face-to-face to discuss Syria’s future, it will be their first formal negotiations since reaching the nuclear accord in July.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will participate in the talks, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said. Iranian diplomats may also meet with U.S. counterparts in separate meetings to discuss implementing the nuclear agreement, Afkham said.
The meeting marks a shift in U.S. policy since Friday, when Kerry said at another gathering on the same topic in Vienna, “There will come a time perhaps” when Iran should participate in talks about Syria’s future, but “we’re not at that moment at this point in time.”
Iran and Russia’s military presence in Syria gives them a place at the table.
“Now the Russians and Iranians are defining the rules,” said Dennis Ross, who was Obama’s envoy on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
He said Iran seeks a four-step process starting with a cease-fire and a unity government in Syria, but this week’s meetings are unlikely to result in a breakthrough because fighting will continue.
“Nobody (in the opposition) is buying into a transition where Assad remains in power,” Ross said. “We (the United States) don’t have the means to get them to change, and the Saudis and Qataris and others supporting the opposition groups are saying we’re here for the long haul.”
The Iran nuclear agreement is another major factor bringing Tehran to the talks, said Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official under President Clinton.
“They’re still doing a lot of things the United States and the West don’t like, but the nuclear deal is a huge sign they can be engaged,” said Kupchan, now chairman of the Eurasia Group risk management firm.
Kupchan said Syria is more important to Iran than to any other country. Syria provides a land bridge for Tehran to Lebanon’s militant Hezebollah, which the State Department considers a terrorist organization.
Bringing Iran into the talks “in no way means we’re close to a deal” to end the civil war, he said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the Vienna talks are “an opportunity to test the seriousness of Russia and Iran in reaching a political solution.” He said Assad must step down “within a specific time frame,” the Associated Press reported.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, plus other Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf, are the main suppliers of advanced weaponry to Syria’s opposition forces.
“If they are serious, we will know it and if they are not serious we will know it too and we will stop wasting time with them,” al-Jubeir said in Riyadh. If the talks fail, “we will resort to other options,” he said without elaborating.
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