By Matthew Lee
UNITED NATIONS — The U.S. took steps Saturday to open a dialogue with Iran and others about the crises in Syria and Yemen.
Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, and 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,” Kerry 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.”
Kerry and Zarif held their first face-to-face meeting since they sealed a landmark nuclear agreement in Vienna in July. Kerry raised concerns about the instability in Syria and Yemen, and the fate of Americans detained by or missing in Iran, his spokesman said.
Zarif said his primary focus would be the implementation of a deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. He also said Iran was willing to discuss regional issues, including the deadly stampede at the Hajj 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,” Zarif said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a meeting with Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, urged him to “contribute to a political settlement of the crises in the region,” and singled out Syria and Yemen.
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 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 U.S. has called, without success, for Iran and Russia to stop backing Assad. In recent weeks, Russia has built up its military presence in Syria. That issue was to be a central topic of discussion in Kerry’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Sunday in New York, a day before President Barack Obama’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
U.S. officials say they are not certain about Russia’s motives for the military buildup, but have said they would welcome a positive contribution to the fight against the Islamic State group that does not bolster Assad. The administration had insisted that Assad must leave power because has no credibility to run the country. Over the past several days, however, officials, including Kerry, have signaled that Assad could perhaps be a part of some kind of political transition that would lead the formation of a new government.
Sherman, who is stepping down from her post next month, echoed that, saying it may be possible for Assad to have a role in a transition.
In Yemen, the fighting involves rebels, known as Houthis, and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against the Saudi-backed and internationally recognized government forces as well as southern separatists, local militias and Sunni extremists.
The war escalated in March when the Saudi-led coalition began a military campaign involving airstrikes and ground troops against the Houthis and their allies. More than 2,100 civilians have been killed, according to U.N. estimates. The coalition recently has sought to retake the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, captured last September by the rebels.