VIENNA: Iran signalled on Friday that it favoured a six-month "transition" period in Syria followed by elections to decide the fate of President Bashar Al Assad, an apparent concession ahead of the first peace conference Tehran was permitted to attend.
Although sources who described the proposal said it amounted to Tehran dropping its insistence on Al Assad remaining in power, it was not immediately clear whether it would actually include steps that would remove him.
Al Assad's government held an election as recently as last year, which he easily won. His opponents have always rejected any proposal for a transition unless he is removed from power and barred from standing in any election that followed.
Nevertheless, a commitment to a defined time limit for a transition would amount to an important new undertaking by Al Assad's closest ally, providing a potential basis for future diplomacy at a time when Al Assad's position has been strengthened by Russia's decision to join the war on his side.
"Iran does not insist on keeping Al Assad in power forever," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian, a member of Tehran's delegation at the Syria talks on Friday, was quoted by Iranian media as saying.
A senior official from the Middle East familiar with the Iranian position said that could go as far as ending support for Al Assad after the transition period.
"Talks are all about compromises and Iran is ready to make a compromise by accepting Al Assad remaining for six months," the official told Reuters. "Of course, it will be up to the Syrian people to decide about the country's fate." Four weeks after Russia tipped the balance of power on the battlefield back towards Al Assad's government by launching a campaign of air strikes against his enemies, Iranian officials were invited to attend an international peace conference for the first time.
All previous efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Syria's civil war have collapsed over the insistence of the United States, European powers, Arab states and Turkey
In the past, Iranian delegations were excluded for refusing to sign up to UN-backed proposals that called for a transition of power in Damascus. Tehran has long said it was not committed to Al Assad as an individual, but that it was up to Syrians to decide his fate, a position that amounted to an endorsement of election results that confirmed him in office.
Russia's participation in the conflict on Al Assad's behalf creates a new incentive for a diplomatic push to end a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million people from their homes.
With Moscow fighting on Al Assad's behalf, Western countries that have called for his removal from power appear to have accepted that he cannot be forced out on the battlefield.
Friday's signal that Tehran would accept a transition of some kind could allow more room for compromise, although it would still require Assad's opponents to make fundamental concessions to accept an election in which he could stand.
HOPE FOR COMPROMISE
The United States has said it is looking for signs of compromise from Tehran and Moscow at Friday's conference, defending its decision to talk directly to Iran about the Syrian conflict for the first time.
The conference will also be attended by European powers, Turkey and Iran's arch enemy in the region, Saudi Arabia.
"I am hopeful that we can find a way forward," US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters shortly before the meeting began on Friday morning. "It is very difficult." White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Thursday Washington was looking for signals from Moscow and Iran that they were willing to use their influence in Syria to help usher Al Assad from power.
"It's unlikely that it will be clear right away whether or not they're willing to use that influence to hasten this political transition. That continues to be up in the air. But we'll see. To exclude Iran and Russia from these conversations would be a missed opportunity." Iranian and Russian officials have repeatedly said the priority for Syria should be the defeat of Daesh (self termed Islamic State militants), who have seized large areas of Syria and Iraq.
The divide between Al Assad's allies and Western and Arab nations seeking his ouster has deepened since Moscow began air strikes against opposition forces in Syria a month ago.
Russia says it is bombing Daesh, but most of its air strikes have hit other groups opposed to Al Assad, including many that are supported by Washington's allies.
The United States is leading its own bombing campaign against Daesh, the world's most violent jihadist group, but says Al Assad's presence makes the situation worse.