Iran says it will attend the international talks on Syria’s future later this week, marking the first time Iranian officials take part in an international summit aimed at finding a solution to the bloody conflict in Syria.
Iranian media reported Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will attend the meeting in Vienna accompanied by three deputy foreign ministers, according to a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday Iran was expected to be invited to the talks. The U.S. delegation will be led by Secretary of State John Kerry. Kirby said the discussion will focus on solutions to the “difficult political situation” in Syria.
The U.S. delegation will be led by Secretary of State John Kerry.
The main set of meetings is due to take place Friday, but preliminary talks are expected Thursday.
Could mark a shift
Attendance at any of the meetings by Iran could mark a shift for the U.S. and other Western powers that have sought to limit engagement with Tehran on issues beyond the Iran nuclear deal reached in July.
However, Kirby stopped short Tuesday of describing Iran as a key U.S. partner in the Syrian crisis.
“We do not certainly by any means approve of the destabilizing activities that they (Iran) continue to pursue in Syria,” he said.
However, Kirby added that the U.S. has recognized that “at some point in the discussion on moving toward a political transition (in Syria), we have to have a conversation and dialogue with Iran.”
A session Thursday, according to Russian diplomatic sources, could include a repeat of a meeting last week between the top diplomats from the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Zarif and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, have discussed the situation in Syria in phone calls. Their ministries said the two diplomats talked Wednesday about preparations for the meetings in Vienna as they spoke for a second straight day.
Iran, like Russia, has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It also has provided support to Syria’s military.
On the other hand, the U.S. and its allies have backed the moderate Syrian opposition.
Also, the U.S. has repeatedly voiced support for a political transition in Syria that leads to a government that is not led by President Assad.
There were fresh signs Tuesday that the U.S. and Iran have not bridged gaps concerning their views on Syria.
The state-run IRNA news agency said a foreign ministry spokeswoman urged the U.S. to stop “supporting the policy of nurturing terrorists.”
The Syrian government and Russia have referred to the moderate Syrian opposition as “terrorists.”
Iran’s position is more closely aligned with that of Russia’s, a country that recently stepped up its military operations in Syria.
U.S. officials said that while U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have targeted the Islamic State group, the vast majority of Russian strikes have targeted the moderate Syrian opposition.
There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent days on Syria’s unrest.
On Tuesday, France hosted talks on the Syria conflict with representatives of the United States, Europe, Jordan and Turkey, but without Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, according to the French foreign ministry.
The meeting was expected to focus on the fight against Islamic State group, the protection of civilians and the proposal for a U.N. Security Council resolution that France plans to put forth next week.
The resolution is aimed at stopping Assad’s forces from using barrel bombs against his Syrian population. Barrel bombs are steel drums full of shrapnel and explosives dropped from the air.
The meeting featured mainly lower-ranking officials, with the United States sending Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
Syria was a focal point for Kerry last week as he traveled to Europe and the Middle East. His trip included talks in Vienna.
In Berlin, Kerry discussed Syria with foreign ministers, including Lavrov. After the meeting, Lavrov said Moscow wanted Syria to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections.
Speaking on Russian state television, he said the Kremlin was intensifying its effort to “covert its increased clout with Damascus into a political settlement.”
Vienna is the first stop of a trip for Kerry that also will include stops in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Samarkand, Uzbekistan; Astana, Kazakhstan; Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
The State Department said it will be Kerry’s first visit to the Central Asian republics.