Iran considers Baghdad conference with US

Iran said today it is considering whether to participate in a Baghdad-organised conference of Iraq's neighbours, which the United States plans to attend.

Iran said today it is considering whether to participate in a Baghdad-organised conference of Iraq's neighbours, which the United States plans to attend.

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

US 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, according to reports.

"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 neighbouring 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 US invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, whom Tehran also opposed.

Iran backed the invasion - only to see Bush name the country part of the "axis of evil" later.

The US severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979 when Iranian militants occupied the US Embassy in Tehran and held its staff hostage.

Washington continues to have diplomatic relations with Syria, including a diplomat at its embassy in Damascus.

The last time the US and Iran had diplomatic contact was in late 2004 during a meeting of 20 nations in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss Iraq's future.

Then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, did not hold formal talks, but Egypt sat the two officials next to one another at a dinner. Powell said the two mostly had "polite dinner conversation", while Kharrazi said the conversation should not be seen as a possible start to better relations.

Larijani did not say what level delegate Iran would send if it chose to attend the conference. Rice said yesterday that the 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.

Along with Iran and Syria, Iraq has invited Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to the discussions. Other Arab countries have not confirmed their attendance or the level of delegates they would send.

Iraq's Ahmad Chalabi, an influential Shiite and head of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, said the Baghdad conference was "long overdue" and expressed hope it would help "in building international support" for the Iraqi government.

"The Iraqi people have been waiting for such an international show of support for our struggle against terrorism and to rebuild our country," Chalabi said. "We will never accept Iraq becoming a battleground for other countries, nor will we accept Iraq becoming as base for destabilising our neighbours."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman said he hoped the proposed meeting would produce results.

"Meeting is good, but results have to flow from meetings," said the spokesman. "We welcome contact, but equally what we want to see is hard, concrete results - that's on the ground in Iraq, that's on the ground in Lebanon, that's on the ground in terms of influence used in Palestine as well."

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 Bush has stepped up accusations that Iran is backing anti-US Shiite militants in Iraq, a number of Iranians in Iraq have been seized by US forces and the American military presence in the Gulf has been reinforced

At the same time, Washington has led a push for stronger sanctions against Iran over the country's nuclear programme.

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 regarding its nuclear programme can be held, a condition Tehran has rejected.

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