VIENNA • Iran and Saudi Arabia, who back opposing sides in Syria, have sat together for the first time at the same table along with major powers in search of a political solution to the devastating war.
Top diplomats from 17 countries as well as the United Nations and European Union gathered in Vienna yesterday in a bid to narrow differences over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has defied Western demands to step down.
In a sign of its growing diplomatic clout, Iran - a long-time sponsor of Mr Assad's regime - is joining the talks for the first time. And getting Iran and Saudi Arabia - the Middle East's foremost Shi'ite and Sunni powers, respectively - to sit at the same table already marks progress.
"Apparently those who have tried to solve the Syrian crisis reached the conclusion that without Iran's presence there will be no possibility of reaching a rational solution," Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, according to state news agency IRNA.
Ahead of the talks, Iran had signalled yesterday that it favoured a six-month "transition" period in Syria followed by elections to decide the fate of Mr Assad, an apparent concession. Although sources who described the proposal said it amounted to Teheran dropping its insistence on Mr Assad remaining in power, it was not immediately clear whether it would actually include steps that would remove him.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in a BBC interview, made it clear that Riyadh is sticking by its view that Mr Assad must leave office quickly, warning: "He will go either through a political process or he will be removed by force."
United States Secretary of State John Kerry sat at the head of the table for the meeting. Mr Jubeir sat almost as far from Mr Zarif as was possible at the tight U-shaped table in the conference room. Until two weeks ago, the idea that bitter rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran would sit at the same table was unthinkable.
The Saudis outright refused, and the two countries have been accelerating an arms race to assure they prevail in Syria. On Wednesday, Mr Jubeir expressed doubt that Iran's sudden inclusion in the talks would help. "If they're not serious, we will also know and stop wasting time with them," he said.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi responded on Thursday by describing Mr Jubeir as clueless and advising him to "keep his mouth closed".
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said as he arrived for the talks: "This meeting is very timely because it is the first time since the start of the Syrian conflict that all the major players are gathering."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was also at the talks, said it was a "sign of hope for Syria and the region" and an "important first step" towards finding a solution.
China sent its Vice-Foreign Minister Li Baodong, saying there was "strong momentum for a political solution".
The United Nations was represented by the special envoy for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura.
But no representatives of Syria's regime or the opposition attended.
"We have a situation of fatigue on the ground, so it could lead to a potential breakthrough," said Mr Karim Bitar of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations.
Mr Kerry, while warning against expectations of an immediate solution, has described the talks as "the most promising opportunity for a political opening we have seen".
"Now it is the right time to bring Iran to the table," he said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES