Iran is willing to sit down with its rivals to discuss the crisis in Syria, President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday but suggested Tehran would not debate the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until peace is achieved.
Speaking at a joint news conference in Tehran with Austria's President Heinz Fischer, the first European Union leader to visit Iran in more than a decade, Rouhani called on the EU and Middle Eastern powers to find a solution to the Syria crisis.
"We will sit down at any table with countries inside and outside the region," Rouhani said when asked if Iran would discuss Syria with regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Iran is a longtime ally of Bashar al-Assad, and since the Syrian revolution erupted in 2011, the Islamic Republic has continued to prop up the Syrian leader with military and economic aid. Iran admits that its military advisors are present in Damascus, but denies that its troops are in the field. Since 2012, the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah has been sending its own members into Syria to fight alongside the Syrian army.
The EU and US have long called for Assad to step down, and a number of other regional powers, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, openly provide support to rebels fighting the Syrian regime.
At the same time, Iran finds itself fighting on the same side of many of its rivals in the regional war against the so-called Islamic State (IS). As US, UAE, and Turkish planes bomb IS positions in Syria and Iraq, Iranian advisors are on the ground helping both Assad and Iraqi government and militia forces to reclaim territory from IS.
Rouhani's remarks echoed what Russian President Vladimir Putin — another powerful ally of Assad — said last Friday. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Putin said that Assad is ready to hold snap parliamentary elections and could share power with a "healthy" opposition.
"We are also working with our partners in Syria. In general, the understanding is that this uniting of efforts in fighting terrorism should go in parallel to some political process in Syria itself," Putin said.
Still, Russia and Iran are not reversing their stance on Assad. On Tuesday, Rouhani reiterated his government's position that a peace deal in Syria cannot hinge on the removal of Syrian president.
"The Syrian people are being killed and losing their homes... our first priority is to stop the bloodshed, bring security and let people return to their homes, then we can talk about the future," he said. "If one day Syria is more secure, that will be in the interest of the whole region and the world."
Speaking on Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was more blunt:
"Those who have set a condition about the Syrian president in the past two years should be blamed for the continued war and they should account for the bloodshed in the past few years," he said in a joint press conference with his Spanish counterpart Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo in Tehran.
Rouhani's statement comes as the US, Iran, and the international community are close to finalizing a deal that would curb Iran's nuclear program. The landmark diplomatic accord may set the stage for further cooperation between Iran and the US.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that, despite an effort by opponents of the Iranian nuclear agreement to hold it up in Congress, the deal would go through.
"The agreement will stand," Reid said in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, three new senators declared their support for the deal on Tuesday morning. Now, with 41 declared supporters in the Senate, the deal cannot be vetoed by Congress.
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