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Iran hints at compromise ahead of Vienna talks

Top diplomats from around the world have arrived in Austria to discuss a peaceful resolution to the Syrian civil war. On the eve of the talks, Iranian officials hinted they could envision ally Assad stepping down.

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Syria peace talks in Vienna

US Secretary of State John Kerry met separately with his Russian and Iranian counterparts late on Thursday, on the eve of an international summit in Vienna aimed at resolving the conflict in Syria. In a growing sign of diplomatic clout for Tehran, Javad Zarif was invited to attend the talks after Iran had been locked out of a succession of international peace conferences.

Friday's meeting in the Austrian capital also marks the first time arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia meet to discuss the crisis. Although no representatives from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad or any from Syrian resistance groups are set to attend, the meeting of so many major players signals the strength of the international will to bring an end to the war as swiftly as possible.

Iran may be willing to let Assad go

Indeed, the push for a diplomatic solution is so strong that, according to Reuters news agency, even staunch Assad ally Iran is willing to accept that he may have to eventually step down in order to ensure a peaceful end to the four-year crisis that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

"Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever," Zarif's deputy, Amir Abdollahian, was quoted by Reuters as telling Iranian media. Another official familiar with the situation told Reuters that Tehran was willing to bend on keeping Assad in power, even perhaps accepting that he step down after a 6-month transition period.

"Of course, it will be up to the Syrian people to decide about the country's fate," the official continued.

Elections now impossible, rebels say

The United States and Saudi Arabia clearly hope to hear from Iran and Assad's other main ally, Russia, as to whether or not they would be ready to abandon their support for the Syrian leader, who is blamed by Washington and its European allies for the violence.

Russia has said it would like to see parliamentary and presidential elections in Syria in the near future, but that idea has been rejected by rebels opposed to Assad as unrealistic given the state of infrastructure in Syria and the presence of "Islamic State" (IS) jihadists in large parts of the country.

Delegates from Britain, Egypt, Germany, France, Lebanon, Turkey, Qatar, and Oman were also scheduled to attend Friday's talks. The crisis has had a significant effect on Syria's immediate neighbors, like Turkey, and EU countries as the conflict pushes millions of Syrians to seek refuge in other countries.

es/bw (AFP, Reuters)

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