By Parisa Hafezi and Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran signaled on Friday that it favored a six-month "transition" period in Syria followed by elections to decide the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, an apparent concession ahead of the first peace conference Tehran was permitted to attend.
Although sources who described the proposal said it amounted to Tehran dropping its insistence on Assad remaining in power, it was not immediately clear whether it would actually include steps that would remove him.
Assad's government held an election as recently as last year, which he easily won. His opponents have always rejected any proposal for a transition unless he is removed from power and barred from standing in any election that followed.
Nevertheless, a commitment to a defined time limit for a transition would amount to an important new undertaking by Assad's closest ally, providing a potential basis for future diplomacy at a time when Assad's position has been strengthened by Russia's decision to join the war on his side.
"Iran does not insist on keeping Assad in power forever," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian, a member of Tehran's delegation at the Syria talks on Friday, was quoted by Iranian media as saying.
A senior official from the Middle East familiar with the Iranian position said that could go as far as ending support for Assad after the transition period.
"Talks are all about compromises and Iran is ready to make a compromise by accepting Assad remaining for six months," the official told Reuters. "Of course, it will be up to the Syrian people to decide about the country's fate."
Four weeks after Russia tipped the balance of power on the battlefield back towards Assad's government by launching a campaign of air strikes against his enemies, Iranian officials were invited to attend an international peace conference for the first time.
All previous efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Syria's civil war have collapsed over the insistence of the United States, European powers, Arab states and Turkey that Assad agree to leave power.
In the past, Iranian delegations were excluded for refusing to sign up to U.N.-backed proposals that called for a transition of power in Damascus. Tehran has long said it was not committed to Assad as an individual, but that it was up to Syrians to decide his fate, a position that amounted to an endorsement of election results that confirmed him in office.
Russia's participation in the conflict on Assad's behalf creates a new incentive for a diplomatic push to end a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million people from their homes.
With Moscow fighting on Assad's behalf, Western countries that have called for his removal from power appear to have accepted that he cannot be forced out on the battlefield.
Friday's signal that Tehran would accept a transition of some kind could allow more room for compromise, although it would still require Assad's opponents to make fundamental concessions to accept an election in which he could stand.
HOPE FOR COMPROMISE
The United States has said it is looking for signs of compromise from Tehran and Moscow at Friday's conference, defending its decision to talk directly to Iran about the Syrian conflict for the first time.
The conference will also be attended by European powers, Turkey and Iran's arch enemy in the region, Saudi Arabia.
"I am hopeful that we can find a way forward," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters shortly before the meeting began on Friday morning. "It is very difficult."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Thursday Washington was looking for signals from Moscow and Iran that they were willing to use their influence in Syria to help usher Assad from power.
"It's unlikely that it will be clear right away whether or not they're willing to use that influence to hasten this political transition. That continues to be up in the air. But we'll see. To exclude Iran and Russia from these conversations would be a missed opportunity."
Iranian and Russian officials have repeatedly said the priority for Syria should be the defeat of Islamic State militants, who have seized large areas of Syria and Iraq.
The divide between Assad's allies and Western and Arab nations seeking his ouster has deepened since Moscow began air strikes against opposition forces in Syria a month ago.
Russia says it is bombing Islamic State, but most of its air strikes have hit other groups opposed to Assad, including many that are supported by Washington's allies.
The United States is leading its own bombing campaign against Islamic State, the world's most violent jihadist group, but says Assad's presence makes the situation worse.
(Additional reporting by Francois Murphy, Matt Spetalnick, Sabine Siebold and Vladimir Soldatkin in Vienna, Sylvia Westall in Beirut, Michelle Nichols in New York and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Peter Graff)