Diplomatic victory as Iran to join summit on Syria in Vienna

Principal backers of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to meet those seeking his removal

Iran is to join this week's summit in Vienna on Syria in a long-sought diplomatic breakthrough that convenes a formal discussion for the first time between all the main powers with an interest in the four-year-old conflict.

Following months of squabbling over the format, Iran has accepted an invitation to attend the gathering on Friday.

Expectations are low of quickly overcoming entrenched differences on Syria, but the meeting breaks ground in bringing together Tehran and Russia – the main backers of Bashar al-Assad's regime – with those agitating for his ousting, including the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

“This is embryonic, it is just the beginning, but at least we have started,” said a European diplomat. It is also a sign of Iran’s gradual return to the international fold since it agreed a nuclear accord that clears the way for sanctions against it to be largely lifted next year.


The involvement of Iran has long been the main obstacle to a comprehensive international peace initiative on Syria. The US in recent weeks has made clear it would be content for Iran to participate – a significant shift from the last high-profile talks in Geneva in 2014. Then the US, in effect, blocked Iranian attendance.

Washington, however, has struggled to persuade its allies and has faced strong objections from Saudi Arabia in particular, which is embroiled in a proxy war with Iran on multiple fronts. US secretary of state John Kerry met King Salman in Riyadh at the weekend and president Barack Obama spoke with the king on Tuesday, partly to talk about the new steps in Syria diplomacy.

On Wednesday Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir confirmed it would participate. He said the process would “test the intentions of the Iranians and the Russians” on finding a political solution in Syria.

Proxy force

The diplomatic push comes amid a serious intensification of the conflict. Russia's intervention has bolstered the position of the regime, whose fighting strength has been replenished by an influx of Iranian "military advisers" and fighters from Hizbollah, Iran's Lebanon-based proxy force. The US, meanwhile, is preparing to revamp its flagging military strategy against the Islamic State jihadi group.

On the diplomatic front, however, the staunchest opponents of Mr Assad in Turkey and the west have begun to show some flexibility in recent months over demanding that he be removed.

Up to a dozen countries may take part in the talks, which will try to find common ground on Mr Assad's future, on how to involve opposition groups and how to deal with Islamic State. Others expected to attend include several European countries as well as regional powers including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Since the start of the crisis, Iran has supported a “political process” in Syria in which elections should determine the fate of the regime. Western diplomats, however, say Iranian officials in private meetings have clarified that, for them, Mr Assad remains a red line for Tehran.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly said in recent months there could be no bilateral talks with the US on regional issues. He has claimed Washington was not serious about crushing IS and has not not stopped Saudi Arabia and Turkey backing Sunni extremists.

In a nod to these sensitivities, Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said the Iranian delegation would review other regional issues with Russian and the EU delegations on the sidelines of the talks – in a clear sign that talks with Washington will be limited to Syria.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015)