TEHRAN (AFP/Reuters) - Iran on Thursday appealed to Syria’s government and armed opposition to open peace talks as it hosted a hastily arranged international conference on the conflict in its key Arab ally.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told diplomats from Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela and other nations that Tehran was prepared to also host such a dialogue, state television reported.

Iran opposes “any foreign interference and military intervention in resolving the Syrian crisis” and supports UN efforts to end the bloodshed, he said. There was no indication Iran was modifying its strong support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have been locked in an escalating war with rebels since an uprising against his rule started in March 2011.

The Tehran conference convened diplomatic representatives, mostly ambassadors, from 29 countries, including Iran, but none from Western states or Turkey or Arab countries in the Gulf that Iran accuses of arming Syria’s rebels. Syria’s government itself was not represented, nor was Syria’s opposition.

The meeting took place in the diplomatic vacuum left by Kofi Annan’s August 2 announcement that he was resigning as the UN-Arab League envoy on the crisis because of lack of UN Security Council support.

The United States and Russia, in particular, differ on how to tackle the Syrian conflict, stalling any UN action. Moscow and Beijing have vetoed three attempts within the Council to sanction Assad’s regime, earning US opprobrium. A frustrated Annan said the “continuous finger-pointing and name-calling” in the Council undermined his mission.

Iran announced the Tehran conference on Monday and said it was inviting only governments with a “realistic position” on Syria, implying those that shared its stance, mirroring that of Russia.

A senior foreign ministry official had said the meeting would be at foreign ministers level, but only three foreign officials of that rank turned up, from Iraq, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Ambassadors filled most of the table.

According to Salehi, those represented were: Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Benin, Belarus, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Oman, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

Tehran was attempting to revive parts of Annan’s plan, notably: implementing a ceasefire, sending humanitarian aid and laying the groundwork for national dialogue, he said.

Iran has already sent humanitarian aid, the foreign minister said, to make up for international sanctions on Damascus that were “not in the interests of the Syrian people but have added to their suffering.”

Ali Akbar Salehi called for “serious and inclusive” talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups.

Twenty-nine nations were present at the hastily convened conference in Tehran which was attended by few high-profile figures, and significantly none of them back the Syrian opposition or have called for President Bashar al-Assad to leave power. With most countries participating at ambassadorial level and the absence of Western and many regional nations, analysts do not expect any firm plan to address the violence will emerge.

Iran, Syria’s main backer in the region, “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.

Salehi said the Islamic Republic rejected “any foreign and military intervention in Syrian and supports the actions of the U.N. for a peaceful solution to the crisis”.

Also present at the Tehran meeting was the United Nations resident coordinator to Tehran, Consuelo Vidal-Bruce, who read out a statement from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that rebuked both government and opposition for relying on weapons to win through violence. “There will be no winner in Syria. Now, we face the grim possibility of long-term civil war destroying Syria’s rich tapestry of interwoven communities,” it said. “We cannot let this prediction come true.”

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.

“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.