- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The United States and Iran each said yesterday that U.S. humanitarian gestures after last week’s earthquake will not reduce the mutual political hostility unless the other side changes its behavior.

The Bush administration hinted that Iran’s acceptance of U.S. aid and its recent cooperation with the U.N. nuclear agency might lead to dialogue “at the appropriate time,” but was rebuffed by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

“It’s worth noting that there have been some positive developments over the past year,” said Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in a Washington Post interview, cited Tehran’s decision to allow surprise inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

He and other officials also noted that Iranian officials had accepted U.S. assistance for the victims of Friday’s 6.6 magnitude earthquake only a half-hour after it was offered, even though it was the middle of the night in Tehran.

“There are things happening, and therefore, we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future,” said Mr. Powell, who appeared unexpectedly at the State Department yesterday for the first time since undergoing prostate cancer surgery on Dec. 15.

“All of those things taken together show, it seems to me, a new attitude in Iran in dealing with these issues.”

But Mr. Khatami had a different view. “What is the point of negotiations if there is no trust that will enable us to reach a common position?” he asked during a visit to Kerman, near the quake-stricken city of Bam.

He said U.S.-Iranian relations cannot improve unless the United States changes its policies.

That is exactly what U.S. officials say Iran must do before any serious dialogue takes place.

“We are not offering negotiations,” Mr. Ereli said, but “we continue to be willing to engage with Iran on specific issues of mutual concern, in an appropriate manner, if and when the president determines it’s in our interest to do so.”

White House and State Department officials insisted that concerns about Iran’s support for terrorism, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its human rights record are too serious to be erased by the earthquake, which has claimed at least 28,000 lives.

“It’s important to note that Iran is among the world’s major, foremost state sponsors of terror,” Mr. Ereli said. “And this is something that remains a fundamental priority for us to contain and to roll back.”

He said the United States sent 300 rolls of plastic sheeting to Iran, enough to provide shelter for 3,000 families, as well as blankets. In addition, 84 disaster-relief specialists, including 60 government medical professionals, have arrived in Iran, he said.

The United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution when radical students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 hostages for 444 days.

U.S. officials have met with Iranians to discuss specific issues, most recently Afghanistan, usually through U.N. channels.

Analysts said any dialogue between the two countries depends on the hard-line clerics who dominate Iran’s foreign-policy establishment.

“The United States has been willing to open dialogue for about a decade,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“There have been a number of occasions in the past when the United States has reached out and sent signals, but they have all been rejected,” he said.

Divisions within the Bush administration are no less significant, said Jon Alterman, director of CSIS’ Middle East Program, who until last year served on the State Department’s policy planning staff.

“It’s difficult to agree on an active approach to Iran,” he said. “There are those who seek revolutionary changes and those who seek evolution, and it’s hard to do both at the same time.”

Although U.S. officials hope Muslims in Iran and other countries will appreciate the American assistance, Mr. Alterman said, it was unlikely to change the widespread negative perceptions of the United States in the Middle East.


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