US opens dialogue with Iran over Syria and Yemen
UNITED NATIONS // The United States opened a dialogue with Tehran on Saturday over the crises in Syria and Yemen, as US secretary of state John Kerry met his Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of the UN general assembly.
Mr Kerry told reporters there would be discussions in the week ahead that could prove critical to resolving the conflicts.
“I view this week as a major opportunity for any number of countries to play an important role in trying to resolve some of the very difficult issues [of] the Middle East,” he said. “We need to achieve peace and a way forward in Syria, in Yemen ... in the region itself [and] I think there are opportunities this week, through these discussions, to make some progress.”
It was the first time that Mr Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif had met face-to-face since sealing a landmark nuclear agreement in Vienna in July.
Mr Zarif said his primary focus in talks with Mr Kerry would be implementation of a deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. He said Iran was also willing to discuss regional issues – including the deadly stampede at the Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia – in the appropriate forum.
“The situation in the region, the unfortunate developments in Saudi Arabia over the last week, have been disastrous and we need to address them. We will address them in the proper international forum,” Mr Zarif said.
On Friday, the Obama administration’s top Iran negotiator, undersecretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman, said discussing Syria with Iranian officials would “make sense” in the context of current developments.
But she noted resistance to the idea within Iran, which, along with Russia, is a main supporter of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. She said the subject of Syria had been raised informally on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations that ended in July, though never in a structured way.
The US has called – without success – for Iran and Russia to stop backing Mr Al Assad.
In recent weeks, Russia has built up its military presence in Syria. This issue is to be a central topic of discussion in Sunday’s meeting between Mr Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in New York. That meeting comes a day before president Barack Obama is set to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
US officials say they are not certain about Russia’s motives for the military build-up, but have said they would welcome a positive contribution to the fight against ISIL that does not bolster Mr Al Assad. The administration had insisted that the Syrian president must leave power because has no credibility to run the country. Over the past several days, however, officials – including Mr Kerry – have signalled that Mr Al Assad could be part of a political transition that would lead to the formation of a new government.
The fighting in Yemen involves Iran-backed Shiite rebels, known as the Houthis, allied with forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, against government forces, backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that includes the UAE, as well as southern separatists, local militias and extremists.
More than 2,100 civilians have so far been killed in the conflict, according to UN estimates.
* Associated Press
Updated: September 26, 2015 04:00 AM