Friday, January 2, 2004

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush said yesterday that his recent decision to ease restrictions on Iran after the country’s devastating earthquake does not signal a thaw in U.S. relations with Tehran.

While the United States is aiding in humanitarian efforts after last week’s earthquake that killed more than 30,000 people, the president said Iran would have to meet several crucial demands before his administration would renew relations with the nation he has dubbed a member of an “axis of evil.”

“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,” Mr. Bush said.

Iran is holding members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network and British newspapers have reported that Osama bin Laden was recently sighted near Tehran. Iranian leaders deny bin Laden is in their country and claim they plan to try al Qaeda members themselves.

The president on Saturday lifted some sanctions against Iran that have been in place since Shi’ite extremists took 54 Americans hostage in 1979. For 90 days, American firms and individuals will be allowed to transfer funds to Iran to be used in relief and reconstruction programs.

The president said his action was simply the right thing to do.

“What we’re doing in Iran is we’re showing the Iranian people the American people care, that they’ve got great compassion for human suffering,” the president told reporters after hunting quail with his father in Falfurrias, Texas.

“We appreciate the fact the Iranian government is willing to allow our humanitarian aid flights into their country. And it’s a good thing to do. It’s right to take care of people when they hurt, and we’re doing that,” he added.

Iranian officials yesterday welcomed the temporary lifting of sanctions, but Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi sought to push the Bush administration further, saying “the permanent lifting of sanctions by the United States will open a new chapter in mutual relations.”

Mohammad Reza Khatami, deputy parliament speaker and the younger brother of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, went even further, implying the U.S. response to the earthquake might win an unspecified reciprocal gesture from Iran.

“We’re evaluating the American government’s positive behavior, and I’m sure that good will will be answered with good will,” he said yesterday.

Mr. Bush, who took reporters’ question yesterday after the quail hunt, also expressed confidence in the U.S. beef industry, despite last week’s discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States.

“As a matter of fact, I ate beef today, and will continue to eat beef,” he said. The president also said he had urged Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman “to take the steps necessary to make sure that the food supply is safe, and that the American consumer can be confident.”

The president kicked off the new year bright and early yesterday, jetting off before dawn to a ranch in south Texas to hunt quail with his father, former President George Bush.

The president bagged five quail before retiring to the El Tule Ranch for lunch and deep discussions with Iraq envoy James A. Baker III, the secretary of state in the elder Bush’s administration who just returned from a trip to Asia, in which he sought to persuade foreign leaders to reduce Iraq’s massive foreign debts.

After the meeting, Mr. Bush said Mr. Baker may soon travel to the Middle East. “He’s yet to go to the Middle East, and he’s going to let me know when he thinks the timing is good for that,” he said.

The quail outing — the first for Mr. Bush, an avid outdoorsman, as president — had obvious political overtones, coming on the first day of 2004, a presidential election year. In the small county 90 miles from the Mexican border, where 91 percent of the 7,683 residents are Hispanic and more than three-quarters voted for Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 election, the president kissed babies and mugged for the media’s cameras.

Dressed in black jeans, work boots, a blue shirt and a brown barn jacket, the president stopped before a group of about a dozen locals who had gathered behind police tape at the airport in Brooks County. “Como estas?” he asked — Spanish for “How are you?” — then posed for pictures as he kissed 9-month-old Liana Flores on the cheek.

“Happy New Year to you” he hollered to bleary-eyed reporters, who arose before 5 a.m. to accompany the president.

The president — who quit drinking alcohol 17 years ago and turned in last night before revelers in New York had rung in the new year — looked chipper as he strode across the airport tarmac. Nearby, Secret Service officers stood on buildings, scouring the sparse countryside with binoculars.

Mr. Bush said it was the hunt — not the kill — that was special.

“You know, when you hunt quail, you get a lot of exercise. As you know, I like exercise,” he said. “But most importantly, I was with my dad. It’s a great way to start 2004.”

As for New Year’s resolutions, the president’s sounded much like those of average Americans.

“Oh, my New Year’s resolution this year is to work — stay physically fit to the point where I can run — in other words, rehab my knee,” which doctors last month said is injured but does not need surgery. “So that’s one of my resolutions, which may require eating less desserts, kind of getting a little trimmer, to take the pressure off the knee.”

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