IMAGE: President Bush
Susan Walsh  /  AP
President Bush speaks to reporters at Brooks County Airport in Falfurrias, Texas, on New Year’s Day. Bush on Thursday appealed to pro-democracy forces in Iran.
updated 1/2/2004 1:02:58 AM ET 2004-01-02T06:02:58

Appealing directly to pro-democracy forces in Iran, President Bush on Thursday said that U.S. humanitarian aid to earthquake victims there should prove that America is compassionate even though it lists Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Speaking to reporters in southern Texas where he and his father went quail hunting on New Year’s Day, Bush didn’t change the U.S. public stance toward Iran — a nation he has labeled, along with Iraq and North Korea, as an “axis of evil.” The president continued to call on Iran to give up its nuclear weapons and do more to fight terrorism, but his words lacked the harsh, warring tones of earlier statements he’s made about the nation.

“What we’re doing in Iran is we’re showing the Iranian people the American people care, that we’ve got great compassion for human suffering,” Bush said.

The Washington Post reported Thursday night on its Web site that the United States has approached Iran about sending a high-level humanitarian delegation to Tehran. It would be the first public U.S. official visit since 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran for 444 days from 1979 to 1981.

The newspaper said the delegation, headed by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., also would include an unspecified member of the Bush family. Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami has not yet responded to the overture, the newspaper quoted U.S. officials as saying.

Bush administration officials have raised the possibility that Iran’s acceptance of American aid following a massive earthquake that killed nearly 30,000 may be a sign of slow movement toward better relations between the longtime enemies. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said recently that there were encouraging developments in Iran and that Tehran was demonstrating a “new attitude” on some issues.

Bush said the United States is glad the Iranian government has allowed U.S. humanitarian aid flights into the country. “It’s right to take care of people when they hurt, and we’re doing that,” Bush said.

Concerns over al-Qaida
But he added: “The Iranian government must listen to the voices of those who long for freedom, must turn over al-Qaida that are in their custody and must abandon their nuclear weapons program.”

He said he hopes Iran will hand over members of the al-Qaida terrorist organization to their countries of origin, scrap its nuclear weapons in a verifiable way and abide by an accord it signed on Dec. 18 to open its nuclear facilities to international inspectors.

“And, as well, it’s very important for them to listen to those voices in their country who are demanding freedom,” Bush said, repeating his support for pro-democracy forces. “We stand strongly with those who demand freedom.”

While thanking the U.S. government for its humanitarian relief work, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said earlier this week that there could be no thaw in a 25-year diplomatic freeze unless Washington changed its tone and behavior.

On Thursday, however, Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi said the Bush administration’s decision to lift sanctions on Iran for 90 days to allow aid to enter was a “positive step.” Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani also welcomed the U.S. move. Asked if these signals could mean improved Iran-U.S. relations, he said: “I am not sure but the signals point in that direction.”

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