STATE DEPARTMENT— U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Middle East this week for talks to promote an international peace conference on Syria. Russia wants Iran to be part of the process.
In this fight for control of Syria, Iran is one of the biggest backers of embattled President Bashar al-Assad. So Russia says Iran should be part of the peace process.
"Iran has repeatedly underlined its solidarity with the Syrian government. Iranian officials pay regular visits to Damascus. No geopolitical bias should be an obstacle to Iran taking part in this conference," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The Obama administration has in the past objected to Russia's call for Iranian involvement but says no one has yet been ruled in or out of these talks. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says Washington understands Moscow's position on Tehran.
"We have seen the remarks of the Russians. Again, it’s not a surprise. They’ve expressed that publicly in the past. And we’ll work through the participation with all parties," Psaki said.
U.S. concerns about involving Iran include how that might distract from ongoing efforts to limit Tehran's nuclear program as well as its support for Lebanon's Hezbollah, which Syrian opposition fighters say is helping Assad forces near the Lebanese border.
"The U.S. perception is that Iran tends to play the role of spoiler in these kinds of settings. And it's trying to bring around the table parties whom the United States and Russia agree have a vested interest in finding a productive way out of the nightmare that Syria is experiencing," said U.S. Institute of Peace analyst Steve Heydemann:
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem says Iran is helping defend his country. "This is an internal war, but it's also a regional and international war against the Syrian people. We are ready to defend ourselves and will not be silent in the face of aggression," he said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi says only a political settlement can head off broader regional conflict.
"With thanks to God, the situation in Syria is going well. Syria's courageous military has regained much of its territory, and Syria will fully regain its strength in the near future," Salehi said.
Heydemann believes there is no way to end the fight without some kind of role for Iran.
"It doesn't mean that the U.S. needs to try to find ways to mollify Iran in addressing the Syria conflict. But it does mean that we need to find some way to reassure Iran that its equities will at least be acknowledged as a process of negotiation unfolds," Heydemann said.
Syria's main opposition group has not committed to joining peace talks, in part, because of questions about which Assad allies - like Iran - will take part.