LONDON: Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called on Thursday for "serious and inclusive" talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups, opening a meeting of friendly nations called by Tehran as it seeks to exert its influence over the conflict.
More than 25 nations were present at the conference but significantly none of them back the Syrian opposition or have called for President Bashar al-Assad to leave power.
State television broadcast the opening statement of the talks, which Salehi said were attended by delegations from Russia, China, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, India, among others.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran firmly believes that the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through serious and inclusive talks between the government and opposition groups that enjoy popular support in Syria," Salehi said at the start of a conference in Tehran to discuss the unrest.
In the speech broadcast live on Iranian television, Salehi said that Iran "rejects any foreign and military intervention in Syrian and backs and supports U.N. efforts to resolve the crisis".
The Syrian government has said it is ready for dialogue but the opposition says Assad must step down as a precursor to any negotiations. Continued hostilities in Aleppo, where the Syrian military is bombarding rebel fighters, make talks unlikely in the near future.
Also present at the Tehran meeting was the United Nations resident coordinator to Tehran, Consuelo Vidal-Bruce, who read out a statement from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"Both the government and the opposition continued to rely on weapons," the translated statement read, and such actions would have "tragic consequences for the Syrian people".
All parties had a common responsibility to "end the violence and the killing of civilians," the Iranian student news agency reported.
In an opinion piece published by the Washington Post on Wednesday, Salehi warned there would be catastrophic consequences if Assad fell from power.
"Syrian society is a beautiful mosaic of ethnicities, faiths and cultures, and it will be smashed to pieces should President Bashar al-Assad abruptly fall," it read.
While Salehi said Iran sought a solution that was in "everyone's interest", Western diplomats have dismissed the conference as an attempt to divert attention away from bloody events on the ground and to preserve the rule of Assad.
"The Islamic Republic's support for Assad's regime is hardly compatible with a genuine attempt at conciliation between the parties," said one Western diplomat based in Tehran.
"RUNNING OUT OF IDEAS"
It showed Iran was "running out of ideas", he added. Another Western diplomat said Tehran was trying to broaden the support base of the Syrian leader.
Along with Russia and China, Iran has strongly supported Assad, whose forces have launched crushing operations against anti-government protesters and armed opposition groups since the crisis erupted 17 months ago.
The Islamic Republic has resisted an agreement on Syria that requires Assad to quit as part of any political transition. There is no sign that Tehran is ready to adopt a new approach, despite setbacks for Assad including the defection this week of his prime minister.
But analysts say the recent signs of cracks in the Syrian leadership have taken Iran by surprise.
"Iran is trying to show strength and regional presence, but if they were going to make a big play why not do it at the Non-Aligned Movement summit (taking place in Tehran in late August)?" said Scott Lucas of the EA Worldview news website that specialises in covering Iran.
"They seem to be so jittery about Syria, they couldn't afford to wait," he added.
Iran's Shi'ite rulers have accused Western and Arab nations - specifically Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia - of fomenting terrorism in Syria by arming opposition groups.
In turn, Syria's mostly Sunni Muslim rebels accuse Tehran of sending military personnel to Syria and of providing light arms, as well as tactical and communications expertise to Syrian government forces.
The crisis has soured Iran's relations with neighboring Turkey which has hosted opposition meetings, extended assistance to Syrian refugees and demanded Assad leave office.
"Iran wants to co-ordinate efforts among countries that don't accept the Western and Saudi approach to Syria," said Mohammad Marandi of Tehran University. "It's a counter-force to the so-called Friends of Syria gathering."
Iranian involvement in the crisis has been complicated by the seizure by rebels of 48 Iranians in Syria on Saturday on suspicion of being military personnel. Tehran has said they were pilgrims, but acknowledged that some of the men were retired soldiers or Revolutionary Guards.
Iranian officials have engaged in intensive diplomatic efforts in the region this week.
On Tuesday, while Foreign Minister Salehi was in Ankara trying to maintain relations, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili was in Damascus to reassure Assad of Tehran's support.
"They're in chaos in terms of the bureaucracy," said EA Worldview's Scott Lucas. "There have been lots of statements but no-one's co-ordinating it." AGENCIES