WASHINGTON — This week's international talks over Syria's future will have a new player at the table: Iran, a key ally of Syria's Bashar Assad.
It's the first time Iran has been invited to the discussions over Syria's four-year civil war, and on Wednesday Iran's state TV and semi-official news agency said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will attend the talks, set to begin Thursday and Friday in Vienna.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and several top European and Arab diplomats will be attending, a familiar cast that up to now hasn't included any Iranian representatives. Kerry departs for the Austrian capital on Wednesday.
The invitation after the United States declared itself ready to engage long-time foe Iran if it might help halt Syria's civil war. While the U.S. doesn't approve of 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 United States is taking a gamble. Iran has backed Assad's government throughout the conflict, fighting alongside the Syrian military, and is seen by Western-backed rebels and U.S. partners in the region as a major source of the bloodshed. The Syrian opposition may balk at Iran's inclusion in any discussions on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.
On the other hand, all previous international efforts have done nothing to stop the fighting, and Kerry is trying to unite all sides with influence in the Arab country around a common vision of a peaceful, secular and pluralistic Syria governed with the consent of its people.
Washington actively opposed Iran participating in two earlier, months-long mediation attempts but recently spoke of the possibility of Iran joining talks in the future. It is now offering Tehran a seat after days of behind-the-scenes negotiation, particularly with its regional rival Saudi Arabia, according to officials who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity
In a telephone conversation Tuesday, President Barack Obama and Saudi King Salman spoke about cooperating closely to fight the Islamic State and "establish the conditions for a political transition in Syria," according to a White House statement. They vowed to build on recent diplomatic efforts. The statement didn't mention anything about Iran.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had ruled out new negotiations with the United States after they 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 U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey met last week in Vienna, putting forward new ideas to revive diplomatic hopes. However, they remained deeply divided over Assad's future.
The United States and its partners say Assad can participate in a "political transition," but would have to leave power at the end of the process if Syria could ever move on from a war that has killed at least 250,000 people and forced more than 11 million from their homes. Russia and Iran reject that demand. Other sticking points include the length of the transition, and what a new constitution and future elections might look like.
Beyond Iran, this week's gathering will expand to include countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Amid all the talking, Syria's fighting goes on. Since last month, Russia has launched hundreds of airstrikes targeting what it says are the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. The Obama administration, NATO and others say most of the bombs are landing on moderate rebel militias, some backed by the CIA.
Meanwhile, violence continues to rage between rebel groups and the Islamic State, and in the Kurdish region in northern Syria, even drawing in Turkey.