The United States has approached Iran about dispatching a high-level humanitarian mission to Tehran, headed by Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and including a member of the Bush family, U.S. and Iranian officials said yesterday.
The delegation would carry additional assistance for survivors of the devastating earthquake last week that killed more than 28,000 Iranians. The overture, made by Washington on Tuesday, awaits a response from the government of President Mohammad Khatami, U.S. officials said.
The mission would be the first public U.S. official visit since the 1979-81 hostage ordeal, when Iranian students held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The only diplomacy since then was during the arms-for-hostages swap in the mid-1980s, when President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North of the National Security Council staff secretly visited Tehran.
The idea for the trip grew out of two simultaneous moves earlier this week, according to U.S. officials. In conversations with senior advisers on Sunday, President Bush asked if there was anything more the United States could do to help Iran cope with a natural disaster that destroyed the 2,000-year-old city of Bam and killed or left homeless its population of 80,000 people. Washington had already dispatched one round of material and personnel to Bam, a city that Iranians consider a national historic treasure.
At the same time, Dole, former head of the American Red Cross, independently contacted the State Department about traveling to Iran with a Red Cross delegation to provide additional aid material, U.S. officials said. The administration embraced the proposal and began exploring the idea of expanding the mission to include an as yet unspecified member of the Bush family, and others, U.S. officials said yesterday. The administration continues to discuss the makeup of a possible U.S. delegation as it awaits Tehran's answer.
U.S. takes a new tone
The new tone toward Iran since the earthquake was reflected Wednesday in statements from the White House and the State Department in announcing further steps to ease the transfer of money and material for relief efforts in Iran, which would otherwise be banned by U.S. embargoes.
"The Iranian people deserve and need the assistance of the international community to help them recover from the catastrophic results of last week's earthquake. The American people want to help, and share great concern and sympathy for those families and individuals who lost loved ones, their homes and possessions," the White House said in a statement released Wednesday.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, "At this time of great emergency, we must do everything we can to help people in desperate need."
U.S. officials insisted that the mission would be humanitarian, not diplomatic, despite the unavoidable symbolism of any official American delegation visiting the Islamic republic. After hunting quail yesterday, President Bush was asked by reporters whether easing the aid restrictions represented an easing of the U.S. relationship with Iran.
"What we're doing in Iran is we're showing the Iranian people the American people care and that we've got great compassion for human suffering. I eased restrictions in order to be able to get humanitarian aid into the country," Bush said.
Bush: Differences remain
The president said the United States still has serious differences with Iran. "The Iranian government must listen to the voices of those who long for freedom, must turn over al Qaeda that are in their custody and must abandon their nuclear weapons program. In the meantime, we appreciate the fact the Iranian government is willing to allow our humanitarian aid flights into their country," he said.
The administration's overture follows steps by Iran to address key U.S. and international concerns about a suspected nuclear weapons program. Last month, Iran signed an agreement allowing snap inspections of facilities that might be used for secret weapons production. In an interview earlier this week, Powell said he found Iran's decision and other recent actions "encouraging."
Powell also signaled that Washington was deliberating the possibility of resuming the behind-the-scenes dialogue suspended last May after three suicide bombings in Riyadh were linked to al Qaeda operatives held in Tehran. Before resuming the talks, the United States wants Iran to deport more than 70 al Qaeda members as a sign that Tehran is willing to cooperate on terrorism.
Officials expressed some skepticism yesterday about whether Iran is willing to welcome a U.S. delegation, because of opposition from hard-line religious clerics and because of sensitive parliamentary elections scheduled next month. "If they really wanted our help, they would have answered already," said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Some influential Iranian officials, including the brother of Iran's president, signaled yesterday that arrival of the initial U.S. aid has begun to change the atmosphere in Tehran on the sensitive issue of the United States.
"In parliament right now we are evaluating the American government's positive behavior, and I'm sure that goodwill will be answered with goodwill," Mohammad Reza Khatami, deputy speaker of parliament, told Reuters yesterday.
He also said the government considered Powell's remarks "positive and especially what the Americans did yesterday to lift the embargo." The president's brother told Reuters that relations with the United States since the 1979 Iranian revolution have been rocked by ups and downs but that Tehran now seeks "to remove the wall of mistrust."
During a visit to Bam, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also told reporters that the United States has "shown positive signals in recent months." Pressed on whether recent development could affect the relationship, he said, "I'm not sure, but the signs indicated that," Iran's news agency reported.
Staff writer Mike Allen in Crawford, Tex., contributed to this report.