Iran and Saudi Arabia, two states on polar opposite sides of the ongoing civil war in Syria, are set to meet face-to-face in Vienna on Friday, as part of international talks which hope to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Saudi Arabia has demanded that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad step aside or be forced out of power.
“The view of our partners… was that we should test the intentions of the Iranians and the Russians in arriving at a political solution in Syria, which we all prefer,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Wednesday. The Saudis will seek “the time and means of Bashar al-Assad’s exit,” he added, according to Reuters.
Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia have forces on the ground in Syria and are actively fighting against efforts by rebel groups to overthrow the Assad regime. Some of those rebel groups receive arms and aid from the Saudis, among other Gulf States.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, will be in Vienna for the conference along with three of his deputies, Iranian state-media reported.
The Obama administration remains open to the idea that even Assad’s allies should have a seat at the table when negotiating an end to the Syrian conflict. Iran and Russia are “key stakeholders” in a solution, the White House said.
“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict in Syria,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.
The talks will also be attended by representatives from Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Lebanon, Turkey, France, and the European Union.
British foreign minister Philip Hammond supported the idea that opposite sides of the Syrian war could engage in constructive dialogue.
“Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two most important and powerful countries in this region. It is very much in the long-term interests of the region that eventually these two countries are able to talk to each other, are able to discuss differences, are able to seek solutions peacefully,” the British FM said.
But opposition groups doubt that actors such as Iran and Russia will do anything but try to cement Assad’s grip on power.
“Iran has only one project – to keep Assad in power… They don’t believe in the principle of the talks,” Syrian National Coalition representative Hisham Marwa told Reuters.