Iran will join the US for talks on the Syrian conflict

US Secretary of State John Kerry takes a drink of water during a meeting to discuss the Syrian conflict with foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Saudi Arabia in Vienna, on Oct. 23, 2015.

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The United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are all participating this week in talks aimed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict.

And today, Iran said it has accepted an invitation to join as well. This is a big deal because Iran has historically been excluded from these sorts of events. Two things, however, have changed US calculations.

First, there is the Iran deal, which was struck in July. The deal prevents Iran from working toward any kind of nuclear weapon in exchange for the easing of international sanctions. But it will also go a long way toward opening Iran up to the world and the world up to Iran, argues Stephen Kinzer, an expert on Iran. These will be the first major negotiations between the United States and Iran since they reached that agreement. And it shows some flexibility by Iran’s supreme leader, who had earlier said Iran would not participate in any more discussions with the United States. Already, it seems, the Iran deal is changing the region in a significant way.

Second, Iran simply has to be part of the talks. After Russia it is the only other country that is aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It’s hard to imagine how any kind of solution could be found without including Iran at the table.

The talks will be interesting. It will no longer be a group of leaders who all have similar aims. Most of the major players will be involved and not all of them will easily agree on a way forward.

Russia and Iran want to see a political solution that doesn’t remove Assad from office, at least not immediately. For the United States and its allies, removing Assad from office is a priority. US officials believe that Assad’s brutal reaction to at first peaceful protests and then an armed rebellion has created the space for the Islamic State to thrive. So for them, if the Islamic State is going to be defeated, Assad must go.

Those are opposite positions that are going to be hard to overcome. The previous round of talks ended last Friday without any resolution. But Russia and the United States agreed on some common goals: fighting extremist groups, keeping Syria unified, and allowing Syrians to decide the future of their country.

That last point seems an odd one to make by the leaders of two countries meeting in a third country with a bunch of other countries to decide the future of Syria.  


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