- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

CRAWFORD, Texas — Iran has rejected a U.S. proposal to dispatch a delegation led by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina Republican, a mission the White House said would have been purely humanitarian, not political, the State Department said yesterday.

As Iran struggles to deal with the effects of a devastating earthquake in the 2,000-year-old city of Bam, which left about 30,000 dead, the nation’s leaders believe the time is not right for a visit by a high-level U.S. delegation.

“We have heard back from the Iranians, that given the current situation in Bam and all that is going on there now, it would be preferable to hold such a visit in abeyance,” State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

“Therefore, we are not pursuing this further at the moment,” he said, adding that talk of such a mission in the future would be “speculation.”

While Iranian President Mohammed Khatami has thanked Washington for its support since the earthquake, hard-line clerics within the government expressed suspicion about the motives behind U.S. offers of aid.

State radio, a mouthpiece for Iran’s clerics, yesterday charged that Mr. Bush had “once again demonstrated that America’s interfering and hostile policy against Iran has not altered at all.”

“The Americans, by publicizing their aid to Iran, have ineptly tried to implement their duplicitous policy of creating a rift between the Iranian nation and government,” the radio said.

The White House made clear that the proposal to send a delegation was based solely on humanitarian considerations and held no political weight.

Before Iran rejected the offer yesterday afternoon, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the trip as proffered “would be a purely humanitarian mission.” She also said that sending a delegation was just “one idea” that was under consideration by the Bush administration.

On Thursday, President Bush emphatically stated that his administration’s recent decision to ease restrictions against Iran did not signal a thaw in relations between the two countries.

Setting out clear steps that Iran must take before the United States would consider renewing relations with a nation the president has dubbed a member of an “axis of evil,” Mr. Bush said Iranian leaders “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.”

Iran is holding members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks against America, and British newspapers have reported that bin Laden was recently sighted near Tehran. Iranian leaders deny bin Laden is in their country and say they plan to try al Qaeda members themselves.

Mrs. Dole, North Carolina Republican and the former head of the American Red Cross, contacted the State Department after the Bam earthquake last month and offered to lead a humanitarian delegation to provide additional aid to Iran. Officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said the administration had been considering sending a member of Mr. Bush’s family to accompany Mrs. Dole on the mission.

The Bush administration on Tuesday conveyed a message through a representative at the United Nations to the Iranian representative about a possible mission, the State Department said. Yesterday, the Iranian representative rejected the offer.

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