Shifting Direction, Kerry Aims to Include Iran in Efforts to End the Conflict in Syria – Michael R. Gordon/The New York Times
UNITED NATIONS — Secretary of State John Kerry sought on Saturday to draw Iran into the search for a political solution to the Syrian conflict as he began a week of diplomacy over the brutal fighting there.
“I view this week as a major opportunity for any number of countries to play an important role,” Mr. Kerry said at the start of a meeting at the United Nations headquarters with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. “We need to achieve peace and a way forward in Syria, in Yemen, in the region itself.”
In early 2014, the Obama administration blocked Iran from attending a peace conference on Syria, on the grounds that its paramilitary Quds Force was a belligerent in the conflict and that Iranian officials did not accept that the goal of the talks should be the formation of a transitional Syrian administration with the “mutual consent” of the opposition and the government.
When Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, invited Iran to attend the conference, which was held in Montreux, Switzerland, Mr. Kerry insisted that the invitation be rescinded.
“Iran is currently a major actor with respect to adverse consequences in Syria,” Mr. Kerry said then.
But with the Islamic State terrorist group making gains in Syria, a tidal wave of migrants swamping Europe, no formal peace talks in sight and Russia engaged in a military buildup at an air base near Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Mr. Kerry is now reaching out to Iran, which has been a major backer of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to see if there is a basis for resuming negotiations. Mr. Kerry has also been consulting with Russia, European nations and Arab states.
Mr. Kerry’s meeting with Mr. Zarif was his first since six world powers and Iran reached a nuclear accord in July. While American officials discussed Syria with the Iranians on the margins of the nuclear talks, they saw the Saturday meeting as a chance for a fuller discussion.
Still, the conditions for a breakthrough on Syria are not auspicious. The Obama administration’s ability to shape a diplomatic outcome in Syria has been diminished by the Pentagon’s failure to train and equip more than a handful of moderate Syrian rebels to confront the Islamic State.
At the same time, Russia has expanded its influence with its military buildup at a base near Latakia. Mr. Kerry said this month in London that Mr. Assad had shown no interest in negotiating a political transition in which he would eventually step down and that Russia had done nothing to bring him to the table. Iran has long had a strategic interest in maintaining Mr. Assad in power because the airport in Damascus, the Syrian capital, serves as a channel for shipping Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia. Iran pressed Hezbollah to join the fighting in Syria on the side of Mr. Assad, provided weapons to the Syrian government and sent its own Quds Force personnel there.
Wendy R. Sherman, the under secretary of state for political affairs, told reporters on Friday that it was unclear whether Iran was interested in working with the United States to negotiate a political transition in Syria.
“There are very strong political sensitivities, differences within Iran about whether there should be discussions with the United States,” she said when asked about Syria diplomacy. “I think there are serious limitations to what Foreign Minister Zarif can do in any formal sense right now. So, as I said, there will probably be some listening as well as some talking.”
In brief remarks at the start of the meeting on Saturday with Mr. Kerry, Mr. Zarif said his main priority was to discuss carrying out the nuclear accord, making no effort to encourage the notion that Iran sees an opportunity to join forces with Washington in finding a solution in Syria.
“The situation in the region, the unfortunate developments in Saudi Arabia over the last week, have been disastrous, and we need to address them,” he said, referring to a stampede at the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that killed more than 700 people. “We will address them in the proper international forum.”
Mr. Kerry continued his talks on Syria in a meeting on Saturday night with Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister. On Sunday morning, Mr. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.