Iran Considering Invitation to Conference of Iraq's Neighbors, Which U.S. Attending

Iran said Wednesday it is considering whether to participate in a Baghdad-organized conference of Iraq's neighbors, which its top rival the United States plans to attend.

Washington's willingness to attend the conference, to which Baghdad invited Iran, marked a diplomatic turnabout after months of refusing dialogue with Tehran over calming the situation in war-torn Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a day earlier that the United States would join the meeting, planned for mid-March, and said Washington supported the Iraqi government's invitation to Iran and Syria.

Ali Larijani, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari contacted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to discuss the conference.

"We are reviewing the proposal," Larijani said Wednesday, quoted by the state TV Web site.

"We support solving problems of Iraq by all means and we will attend the conference if it is expedient," Larijani said. "We believe Iraq's security is related to all its neighboring countries, and they have to help settle the situation."

Larijani suggested that the American presence at the meeting was not a problem for Iran. Asked by reporters if Iran was running a risk by attending the conference alongside the Americans, he replied, "One should not commit suicide because one is afraid of death" — meaning Iran should not hurt itself just to avoid possible negative results.

Many Iranians feel resentful over the last major diplomatic dialogue with the United States — when officials from both sides met before the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, whom Tehran also opposed. Iran backed the invasion — only to see Bush name the country past of the "Axis of Evil" later.

Larijani did not say what level delegate Iran would send if it chose to attend the conference. Rice said Tuesday that the March gathering would be at a sub-ministerial level, which would be followed by a full ministerial meeting, possibly in early April.

Syria will be represented at the conference by Ahmed Arnous, an aide to the foreign minister, a Syrian Foreign Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plans had not yet been formally announced. Other Arab countries and Iran have not confirmed their attendance or the level of delegates they would send.

Iran has said in past months that it is willing to meet with the United States to discuss how to calm the violence in Iraq. But tensions have increased dramatically between the two countries recently.

President George W. Bush has stepped up accusations that Iran is backing anti-U.S. Shiite militants in Iraq, a number of Iranians in Iraq have been seized by U.S. forces and the American military presence in the Gulf has been beefed up.

At the same time, Washington has led a push for stronger sanctions against Iran over the country's nuclear program. The United States accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons, a claim Tehran denies. The United Nations has demanded Iran suspend uranium enrichment before any negotiations over its nuclear program can be held, a condition Tehran has rejected.