While Syria said Wednesday it would participate, Iran said it was considering whether to take part in a Baghdad-organized conference of Iraq's neighbors that the United States plans to attend.
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 was quoted by the state TV Web site as saying Wednesday.
"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."
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.
Bush administration changes course
Washington's willingness to attend the conference, to which Baghdad invited Iran and Syria, marked a diplomatic turnabout after months of refusing dialogue with Tehran over calming the situation in Iraq.
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.
Asked by reporters if Iran was running a risk by attending the conference alongside the Americans, Larijani 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 President Bush name the country part of the "axis of evil" later.
The U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979 when Iranian militants occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held its staff hostage. Washington continues to have diplomatic relations with Syria, including a charge d'affaires at its embassy in Damascus.
The last time the U.S. and Iran had diplomatic contact was in late 2004 in a meeting of 20 nations in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik to discuss Iraq's future. Then-U.S. 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."
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.
Other neighbors invited
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, 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 destabilizing our neighbors."
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. 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," said Blair's spokesman, on customary condition of anonymity.
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.
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 Tehran over its 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.