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Iran Joins Talks About War In Syria

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Maybe it is worth noting who is not at the talks beginning this morning in Vienna over Syria's civil war. Bashar al-Assad's regime is not there, neither is anyone from the anti-Assad forces in Syria who are supported by the United States. But many of their patrons are attending, among them Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and for the first time, Iran. Peter Kenyon is covering the talks in Vienna and joins us on the line. Peter, good morning to you.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Peter, what does it mean that Iran is there at the table now? I mean, is this going to change the dynamic of these talks?

KENYON: Well, it does in one definite way. It gives them support to Russia, which has been trying to convince other countries that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may well have a role in the country's future, at least to hold it together in the short-term, which raises the really big question of how long would he have to stay in power. Iranian officials have been signaling, interestingly, that their support for Assad doesn't necessarily mean he has to stay in power forever. What that means we're waiting to find out because Iran is a big ally of Syria, and that's raised some speculation here among diplomats that maybe Tehran could become a kind of a go-between, some sort of an intermediary, bringing messages to the Assad regime, maybe making some progress toward a diplomatic solution.

GREENE: I mean, trust has always been the big question when it comes to Iran. I mean, President Obama under a lot of pressure in the United States not to trust the Iranian regime. I mean, any signs that they can be trusted in sort of a mediator role here?

KENYON: Well, I think you've hit on a big problem. There's lots of reasons why that view of Iran as a mediator seems a bit optimistic, not least the extreme tensions we've got in the region itself, largely led by the tension between Iran and its main Arab neighbor, Saudi Arabia.

GREENE: Saudi Arabia, who has been very vocal about not wanting Iran very involved here, is there opposition to Iran being at the table easing at all?

KENYON: That's not entirely clear. The Saudis have agreed to there being at this meeting, they call it, a test of Iran's intentions. Clearly, there's a lot of skepticism there. The Saudi powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, is at loggerheads with the Shiite power, Iran, all over the region in Syria as we know but also down in Yemen where they're backing opposite sides in that very bloody conflict. You know, a lot of people see this as the U.S. versus Russia in the global sphere, but the regional rivalry is going to be just as difficult and thorny. The Saudis are really unhappy to see Iran emerging from international sanctions, getting more power and money as a result of the nuclear agreement. They're really worried that Iran's going to be expanding its influence.

GREENE: Peter, I mean, if we listen to the rhetoric - I'm kind of coming from different sides here - Russia and President Vladimir Putin has said, you know, that Western countries just don't have a right to remove a leader of another country. You have then the United States insisting that removal of Assad is absolute. That has to happen. But once we get into talks like this, a negotiation, I mean, do you see something coming together where, you know, Assad might be able to stay in power for some time, but countries like Russia and Iran would agree, yes, he has to go?

KENYON: Well, those are the signals we're getting. It's that is he - does he have an interim role, and does that interim role include, for example, a very big question, standing for elections if Syria holds elections in the near future? Those kind of questions are where these talks are going to bump up against some very difficult conflicting agendas.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Peter Kenyon covering talks in Vienna today over Syria's civil war and the future of that country. Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.