On October 29, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Vienna with a delegation of Iranians to participate in peace talks on Syria. Zarif met bilaterally with Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss implementation of the nuclear deal. Kerry also used the meeting to raise the case of missing and detained U.S. citizens in Iran. Zarif also had a bilateral with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
On October 28, Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would lead a delegation to the Vienna peace talks on Syria. The invitation, backed by the United States, marks a major change after two earlier failed peace initiatives in 2012 and 2014. In January 2014, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon initially invited Iran to a conference in Geneva. But under U.S. pressure, he withdrew it one day later. His spokesperson cited Iranian public statements that were “not at all consistent” with oral assurances Tehran had given regarding the Geneva Communique, which calls for a transitional government to lead to free and fair elections.
The Syrian National Coalition, a Western-backed opposition group based in Turkey, opposed Iran’s participation in the Vienna talks. “Involving it in talks undermines the political process,” SNC Vice President Hisham Marwa told Reuters. “What’s important now is not to refuse talks, it is important to express our concern. Iran has only one project – to keep Assad in power... they don’t believe in the principle of the talks.”
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged Iran’s role in the conflict. It would be “hard to imagine a Syrian solution without Iran,” he told France 24. “I think it is fair to say that no one is wedded to Bashar al Assad,” Blinken posited. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian had previously toldThe Guardian that “we are not working for Assad to stay in power forever as president.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, along with Deputy Foreign Ministers Abdollahian, Abbas Aragchi and Majid Takht Ravanchi, will attend the Vienna conference on October 30, according to spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham. Zarif and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had discussed the Vienna conference earlier in the week. “We call for a widening of the dialogue,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on October 28. Some 20 countries sent representatives to Vienna, including Britain, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
The following are excerpted remarks by officials on the talks.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Antony Blinken: First, all of the neighbors – Syria’s neighbors in this case – are invited to the meeting in Vienna on Friday, so that includes Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran. And it’s evident that Iran, one way or another, is going to have to be part of the conversation on Syria’s future.
Marc Perelman (France 24): But it was not part of that conversation because of its supposedly destructive role in Syria, and that hasn’t changed.
Blinken: Well there are two things. President Obama has been very clear that he is willing to engage with anyone who is willing to try to work for a peaceful outcome in Syria. And as Secretary Kerry has said, Iran one way or another is going to be playing a role. Now unfortunately to date, it’s played a negative role in terms of its support for Bashar al-Assad, in terms of its proxy, Hezbollah, which is helping to prop up the regime. So one of the big questions will be whether Iran is prepared to play a positive role in supporting a political transition. We don’t know the answer to that.
Perelman: The political transition – you mentioned it. If you talk to Russia, if you talk to Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s two main backers, you’re effectively talking to or with him. This means there is no precondition that he must leave power to discuss. He will be part of a transition, he does not need to leave now.
Blinken: Our position, and I think the position of most of our partners, is pretty clear.
Perelman: No, it’s not.
Blinken: Well we’ll see. And Vienna will help to clarify that as well. There is no future for Syria as a stable, secular, democratic, peaceful country with Assad as president. So any political transition must result in his departure among other things. The question is how exactly to define that process. That’s exactly what we’re working on. But there’s something new here, and that is Russia’s role. …
Perelman: From your conversations with the Russians, are they telling you that they can convince Assad to an acceptable transition – that he would leave power in one year, two years – is this what they’re telling you and is this why you’re trusting them to hold those conversations?
Blinken: Well we’re at the beginning of this process.
Perelman: But you’ve had talks.
Blinken: We’ve had talks but the critical next step will be this meeting in Vienna. This is not going to be resolved in one meeting, or two meetings, or three meetings. But it is the beginning of an intensified process to see if we can get to a political transition process. That’s exactly what we’re working on. I can’t give you the answer now, we don’t know yet. But I think it’s fair to say that no one is wedded to Bashar al-Assad –
Perelman: Including the Russians?
Blinken: Well I think you’d have to ask them directly.
Perelman: And the Iranians?
Blinken: You’d have to ask them. But we’ll have an opportunity as a result of these conversations and discussions to test those propositions.
Perelman: Are the Saudis on board with the Iranians being part of that?
Perelman: You know there are serious tensions between the countries…?
Blinken: Yes. Yes. The answer’s yes.
Perelman: So you think now the stars are aligned to maybe really find a political solution in the not so distant future in Syria?
Blinken: Well they’re more aligned than they’ve been. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll get there. But it does mean that there’s a greater opportunity and I think it’s because there’s a growing recognition on the part of all sides that there is no military solution in Syria. And that’s a recognition that’s now growing on the Russians. We’ve known it for a long time. They’re now experiencing it. They cannot win in Syria. They can perhaps prevent Assad from losing, but they can’t win. And meanwhile, they will be bled and their influence will be eroded, and their reputation will be eroded.
“I just returned from meetings in Vienna that included a remarkable session, that broke some new ground, where we had the quartet of Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. And I will head back to Vienna tonight to take the next step in our discussions with representatives from an ever broadening group of nations, including Iran, which will join one of these multilateral gatherings for the first time. And while finding a way forward on Syria will not be easy – it’s not going to be automatic – it is the most promising opportunity for a political opening where recognizing what is happening – that Syria is being destroyed; that Europe is being deeply impacted; that Jordan is being greatly put under enormous pressure, Lebanon, Turkey, the region; and so many millions of Syrians are displaced within Syria itself, most compelling of all, the tragedy that Syrians are living every single day – the best opportunity we have is to try to come to the table and recognize there has to be the political solution that everybody has talked about.”
“The secretary thought it was time to bring everybody together and effectively call their bluff, determine whether or not ... their public commitment to fighting [Islamic State] and terrorism is a meaningful one and the extent to which they are prepared to work broadly with international community to convince Mr. Assad that during a political transition process he will have to go.”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that [Iran is a key partner], but I just mean that you need key – as I said yesterday, there are many stakeholders in Syria and what’s going on. Iran, though we do not certainly by any means approve of the destabilizing activities that they continue to pursue in Syria, recognize that and always have recognize, that at some point in the discussion moving towards a political transition we have to have a conversion and a dialogue with Iran. And so I wouldn’t call them a partner necessarily. But obviously, there are many stakeholders in this, and so we do anticipate that Iran will be asked to participate. Now, whether they come or not, that’s up – that’s up to Iranian leaders.
“[T]he goal is to come up with a framework – an agreed-upon, international, multilateral framework – for a successful political transition in Syria, which is – leads to a government not led by Bashar al-Assad and is – that is representative of and response to the Syrian people. That’s the overarching goal.
“And as I said yesterday, that’s a difficult task, certainly given the ongoing violence that we’re seeing in Syria and all the different perspectives that many partners and participants in these meetings have and espouse. We understand that. So I can’t tell you exactly what the outcome of the meetings on Friday are going to be or if they’re – it’s the last chapter. I rather doubt that. I think there will be – there’ll continue to be more such discussions with varying degrees of participation internationally. So we just have to see.
“But coming out of this last trip to Vienna, the Secretary felt optimistic that enough progress was being made towards laying down the foundation of what a political transition could look like that he felt it was really important to continue that momentum. And that’s what this next meeting in Vienna hopefully will do, will build on this momentum."
Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Major General Hassan Firouzabadi
"The Saudi regime with its all-out support for the ISIL and its terrorist acts in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as well as numerous crimes, including its attacks on hospitals, schools and people's homes, is a war criminal and its presence in the Vienna multilateral talks is, thus, suspicious and illegitimate."
“The [two] sides [Iranian and Russian foreign ministers] continued discussion of possible ways of settling the Syrian crisis with a focus on urgent steps towards establishing an intra-Syrian political dialogue.”
“The two diplomats stressed that there is no alternative to promoting this process by all key countries of the region.”
“There will be a meeting on Friday of a broad group of countries supporting the Syrian opposition as a broader group of countries from the region will meet to discuss the intentions of these countries in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis, the most important element of which is the time and means of Bashar al Assad's exit.”
“If they're [Iranians] serious we will know, and if they're not serious we will also know and stop wasting time with them.”