Iran will take part in Syria peace talks

Members of the Revolutionary Guards at an Oct 11 funeral procession in Teheran for top commander Hossein Hamedani, who was killed in Syria. This week's talks on ending the Syrian conflict will be the first time the US will enter formal negotiations w
Members of the Revolutionary Guards at an Oct 11 funeral procession in Teheran for top commander Hossein Hamedani, who was killed in Syria. This week's talks on ending the Syrian conflict will be the first time the US will enter formal negotiations with Iran on issues beyond the nuclear deal reached in July.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will join talks with Russia, the United States and European countries in Vienna this week that are aimed at ending the conflict in Syria.

"We have reviewed the invitation, and it was decided that the Foreign Minister would attend the talks," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marzieh Afkham said on state television yesterday.

It will be the first time that Secretary of State John Kerry will enter formal negotiations with Teheran on issues beyond the nuclear accord reached in July.

Russia had been pressing to include Iran, the only other major power giving military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Senior American officials have begun to acknowledge in recent weeks that no serious discussion of a possible political succession plan in Syria can happen without Teheran's involvement.

But the American denunciation of Iran's activities in Syria, including its support for Mr Assad's forces and for terror groups such as Hizbollah, has always prevented the United States from including Iran in formal talks on the Syrian crisis.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing on Tuesday that the US "recognised that at some point in the discussion, moving towards a political transition, we have to have a conversation and a dialogue with Iran".

The change is another example of how Russia's military entry into the Syrian war has changed the power dynamic of the sporadic talks. For a long while, the US argued that Mr Assad must go - as President Barack Obama declared four years ago at the White House - before negotiations on a successor could begin.

That position was altered recently to say that a political solution could be sought as long as it included an eventual transition of power, perhaps to another Alawite-dominated government.

But the latest shift is a recognition that Russia and Iran may well be the two biggest voices in the discussion on who succeeds Mr Assad - if a political transition can be engineered - and leaving the Iranians out of the conversation was "simply ignoring reality", said a senior US diplomat.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared recently there would be no cooperation with the US beyond the nuclear accord.

And the Iranian move to side with Russia in Syria - whether it is a tactical step to bolster a flailing ally in Mr Assad, or a strategic one to play Russia and the US against each other - has support among hard-liners in the Iranian leadership who feared the nuclear deal would favour reformers, particularly President Hassan Rouhani.

NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2015, with the headline 'Iran will take part in Syria peace talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe