Iran on Sunday confirmed it will attend this week's conference on Iraq in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, saying its delegation will be headed by its foreign minister.
The announcement will be widely welcomed as Iran, a Muslim Shiite-majority nation, has considerable influence among Iraqi Shiites, who now lead the Baghdad government. Iran is also suspected of having influential links with Shiite insurgent groups, although it has repeatedly denied such ties.
"A high-ranking delegation headed by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will attend the Egyptian conference on Iraq," Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in an interview with state television.
Hours earlier, the Iraqi prime minister's office had announced that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had called to say his country would send a delegation to the two-day conference, which begins on Thursday.
"The decision came after consultations between Iraqi officials and the Iranian president," Hosseini said in the telephone interview, which was played on state TV.
Until Sunday, Iran had been the only country not to have announced its participation in the conference. All of Iraq's other neighbors as well as Egypt, Bahrain and representatives of the big five U.N. Security Council members have agreed to attend.
Hosseini's announcement came shortly after a top Iranian envoy, Ali Larijani, arrived in Baghdad for talks on issues to be raised at the conference. Hosseini said earlier Sunday that Larijani was going to the Iraqi capital because Iran had "some questions and ambiguities about the agenda."
'Very important visit'
In Baghdad, an adviser in the prime minister's office, Sadiq al-Rikabi, confirmed Larijani would meet senior Iraqi officials, adding: "It is a very important visit."
The Iraqi government has been pressing for Iranian participation. Last week Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari came to Tehran to persuade Iran to attend the conference, and told reporters that the country's participation was "vital."
Since the conference invitations were issued early this month, Iran has repeatedly demanded the release of five Iranian officials detained by U.S. troops in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January. But Hosseini told reporters Sunday that his government had not linked its participation at the conference to that demand.
Iran says the five officials were diplomats who should not have been detained. The U.S. military has said they are suspected of links to a network supplying arms to Iraqi insurgents, an accusation that Iran has denied.
U.S. Message: Don't send weapons
Earlier Sunday, the head of the Iranian parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, Alaeddin Boroojerdi, said an Iranian delegation should go to Sharm el-Sheik.
"Iran should attend the conference, actively and powerfully," Boroojerdi was quoted as saying by IRNA.
Boroojerdi added that if Iran did not participate, it would lay itself open to criticism from the United States.
Iraq, which like Iran is majority Shiite, has found itself in a difficult position since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with the government trying to maintain good relations with its eastern neighbor while not angering the Americans.
U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday signaled that the conference could provide an opportunity for talks between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and an Iranian official.
Bush said that if such a meeting were to occur, Rice's message would be: "Don't send weapons in (to Iraq) that will end up hurting our troops, and help this young democracy survive."
The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Although there have been intermittent diplomatic contacts, the Bush administration has resisted pressure to start direct talks with Iran to improve security in Iraq.