Iran confirmed Wednesday that it will attend the international talks on Syria's future later this week in Vienna following an invitation from the Russian envoy for Tehran's first appearance at such a gathering.
The invitation came after the United States declared itself ready to engage Iran, the most committed backer of the Assad government, in search of an end to Syria's four-year civil war. Inviting Tehran to the table reflects a shift in Washington and a retreat by key allies such as Saudi Arabia, which had — in response to previous Russian efforts to include the Iranians in the talks — vehemently opposed any Iranian role in shaping events in Syria.
Tehran, which characterized the latest development as Washington accepting the “realities” on the ground in Syria, has provided the government of Bashar Al-Assad with military and political backing for years. Iran admits that its Revolutionary Guard officers are on the ground in Syria in an advisory role, but denies the presence of any combat troops in the country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia's Lavrov and several top European and Arab diplomats, including those from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, will be attending — a familiar cast that up to now has not included any Iranian representatives. Kerry departs for the Austrian capital on Wednesday.
Iran's attendance could be a game-changer, though Syrian opposition groups are likely to balk at Tehran's inclusion in any discussions on what a post-Assad Syria should look like. Iran's attendance would also mean that traditional Iran-Saudi regional rivalries could surface at the negotiating table. The U.S. reportedly lobbied its regional ally Saudi Arabia to accept Tehran's place in Friday's meeting.
Iranian state TV quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, as saying Wednesday that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will attend the talks. It didn't provide details but said Zarif discussed the Syrian crisis with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
The report also said Deputy Foreign Ministers Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-e-Ravanchi would accompany Zarif on the trip.
“We believe the solution for Syria is a political solution. Americans and foreign players in Syria have no choice but to accept the realities in Syria,” Abdollahian told state TV Wednesday. “Assad … has the necessary readiness for talks with insurgents who are committed to a political path.”
Iran's semi-official ISNA news agency also quoted the foreign ministry spokeswoman as saying the Islamic Republic would attend. Earlier in the day, she said Tehran was considering whether to join the gathering in Vienna.
To date, international efforts have failed to stop the war, now in its fifth year with over 250,000 dead and millions displaced from the conflict.
Washington is trying to unite all sides with influence in Syria around a common vision of a peaceful, secular and pluralistic country governed with the consent of its people.
Beyond Iran, this week's gathering will expand to include countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry also said Wednesday he would attend.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had ruled out new negotiations with Washington after the United States and five other nations clinched a long-term nuclear agreement in July. But Iran clearly has a stake in Syria's future, as Assad's government has helped the Iranians exert dominance over nearby Lebanon and threaten Israel through their proxy, Hezbollah.
The meeting is set for Friday in the Austrian capital. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said that Tehran would be invited to participate in the talks.
While the U.S. doesn't approve of what it calls Iran's "destabilizing activities" in Syria, State Department spokesman John Kirby said American officials "always have recognized that at some point in the discussion, moving toward a political transition, we have to have a conversation and a dialogue with Iran."
The U.S. acceptance of an Iranian role in the upcoming talks may be due in part to Russia's increased role in the conflict. Moscow, which like Iran backs the Assad government, has significantly ramped up its role in the Syrian conflict. Last month, Russia launched a campaign of airstrikes to bolster the Assad government against an array of Syrian rebel groups, reportedly including groups to which the U.S. has given aid.
The Russian campaign seems to have, for the moment, shifted the tide against the rebels, whose advances over the past year had put the Assad government on the defensive.
But the Russian military effort, which has provided air cover for Syrian government and Iranian advances on the ground, has proved less decisive than Moscow and its allies had hoped, a signal that it may welcome the newest round of talks.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press