MOSCOW (AP) — Iran will "inevitably" become part of attempts to end Syria's civil war, Russia's foreign minister said Thursday, as Moscow strongly urged the West to invite Tehran to participate in next week's peace conference.
Sergey Lavrov met with Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, and they were later joined by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. Lavrov will also have a separate meeting with al-Moallem on Friday. Iran "must be and inevitably will become part of complex efforts to settle the Syrian problem," Lavrov said.
He reaffirmed Moscow's view that Tehran must be allowed to join the Syria conference, dubbed Geneva 2, which opens Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland. The U.S. has opposed the involvement of Iran, the strongest regional ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Later in the day, Zarif met with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who hailed the Iranian leadership for the success of last November's agreement that commits Tehran to curbing its nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief. Putin also called for boosting Russian-Iranian trade.
Asked Thursday about a report alleging that Iran is negotiating a deal to provide Russia with oil in exchange for Russian goods that caused the U.S. concern, Zarif told the Interfax news agency only that Russian-Iranian relations "don't violate any international norms and aren't directed against any other country."
Zarif said he wasn't involved in such talks and was unaware if there are any such talks between Russian and Iranian companies, Interfax reported. Lavrov said Russia trusts U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who sends out invitations to the peace conference, as a "man who understands the realities of the region and is aware of his responsibility for the success of the Geneva 2" conference.
Lavrov insisted the talks in Moscow between him and his counterparts from Iran and Syria "have no hidden agenda" and share the goals of settling the Syrian conflict set by the United Nations. "Russia, the Syrian people and Iran are interested in uprooting terrorism on Syrian territory," he said at a news conference.
Russia has been the key supporter of Assad's regime throughout the nearly 3-year old war that has killed more than 120,000 people, shielding Syria from the U.N. sanctions and continuing to provide it with weapons. In September, President Vladimir Putin helped avert a U.S. military attack against Syria by helping broker a plan for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons.
Lavrov said the launch of the Syrian peace conference should mark the beginning of a long negotiation process between the Syrian parties. Prospects for the talks, the first between the warring sides in Syria since the start of the conflict, are dim as each party shows no inclination for compromise.
The opposition says the talks should lead to a transitional government that would see Assad step down. The government rejects the demand and has indicated Assad may run for re-election in June. Syria sent a letter to the U.N. confirming its participation in the conference, U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said Thursday. He wouldn't comment on the contents when asked about conditions reportedly included in the letter.
Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.