US Secretary of State urges Iran to attend Mideast meeting on Iraq

( LatWp ) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Iran not to boycott a conference next week of the major countries and parties with a stake in the future of Iraq, at which the United States and Iran would have an opportunity for senior-level talks.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran is still ``reviewing'' whether it will attend. Yet in a reflection of the sometimes bizarre relations between Tehran and Washington, he also called for direct talks with President Bush. ``Last year I announced readiness for a televised debate over global issues with his excellency Mr. Bush, and now we announce that I am ready to negotiate with him about bilateral issues as well as regional and international issues,'' Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by an Iranian television channel. He made similar comments in an interview with Reuters.

U.S. and Middle East officials dismissed the offer as grandstanding.

In an interview with the Financial Times published Monday, Rice said it would be a ``missed opportunity'' if Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki does not join counterparts from five neighboring states--as well as the United States, the European Union and the United Nations--at the conference in Egypt. Senior Iranian officials have indicated Mottaki might not attend, in part because the United States has refused to release five Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers captured in northern Iraq in January.

The standoff comes when the Bush administration is seeking regional help to stabilize Iraq, as even top U.S. officers say the new security plan for Baghdad is having mixed results. Iran is particularly important because it has aided or armed Iraq's major Shiite political parties and militias as well as Kurdish parties. U.S. officials recently charged that Tehran is also providing weaponry to Sunni fighters.

Rice is scheduled to attend the conference in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheik May 3 and 4, as are Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top Iraqi officials.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari is expected to fly to Iran this week to make the case for Iran to send senior representation to the meeting, a senior Iranian official said Monday. A decision by Mottaki not to attend--or to send only lower-level diplomats--could undermine efforts to win real involvement by key neighbors.

Tehran feels affronted on several counts, which will all factor into its decision, Iranian officials said Monday.

The regime in Tehran thinks that it was in part duped into attending a lower-level meeting of the same parties last month in Baghdad, in which it agreed to participate after Iraqi officials said they expected the five Iranians to be released shortly, Iranian sources said. The Bush administration overruled a recommendation from the State Department to release the five intelligence operatives picked up in a raid on Iran's liaison office in Irbil.

The Iranian captives, known as the Irbil-5, now have the same status as about 250 other foreigners captured in Iraq. Their cases are not eligible for review until July, U.S. officials say.

Iran is also unhappy because it was excluded from final consultations on the venue and agenda of the meeting, even though it has more political sway in Iraq than any neighbor, Iranian sources said. But Tehran also does not want to be seen as obstructing neighbors' efforts on Iraq, Iranian officials said. The compromise might be to send a lower-level official , sources added.

In the interview, Rice also said the United States is open to discussing any topic with Iran if it will agree to suspend the enrichment of uranium, which can be used to develop nuclear energy as well as nuclear weapons. If Tehran complies with a U.N. demand to suspend enrichment and comes to the negotiating table, ``I will come to the table, too,'' Rice said. ``It would reverse 27 years of policy. We can talk about anything.''

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