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Iran: U.S., Iranian Leaders Dampen Expectations Of 'Earthquake Diplomacy'

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Can a dialogue between Washington and Tehran emerge from the rubble of the earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people last week in southeastern Iran? Some U.S. and Iranian officials have hinted it might. But both Tehran and Washington are lowering expectations with tough conditions that are unlikely to be met.

Washington, 2 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The earthquake that struck Iran's southeastern city of Bam prompted an outpouring of international aid for survivors, including some delivered by the first U.S. flights into the country in decades.

Washington's desire to participate in the relief effort -- and Tehran's acceptance of its help -- has given rise to widespread media speculation that the Bam tragedy could produce some "earthquake diplomacy" that might help ease tense relations between the two countries.

But one week after the earthquake struck, officials on both sides are making it increasingly clear that humanitarian aid is one thing, politics another.

U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters in Washington yesterday that dispatching aid to Iran was "the right thing to do." But he also suggested that the Iranian government would have to address a long-standing list of U.S. concerns about its domestic and international behavior before there could be any improvement in its relations with the United States.

"What we're doing in Iran is we're showing the Iranian people [that] the American people care. We've got great compassion for human suffering, and [we are going to] ease restrictions in order to be able to get humanitarian aid into the country. The Iranian government must listen to the voices of those who long for freedom, must turn over Al-Qaeda [suspects] that are in their custody, and must abandon their nuclear weapons program. In the meantime, we appreciate the fact that the Iranian government is willing to allow our humanitarian aid flights into their country. It's a good thing to do. It's right to take care of people when they hurt, and we're doing that," Bush said.

Bush's remarks came as the U.S. Treasury announced yesterday that it will temporarily ease financial restrictions on Iran in a move to speed up the flow of humanitarian relief. Under the special 90-day measure, U.S. citizens and nonprofit groups can donate money directly to nongovernmental organizations working in Iran on reconstruction and relief efforts, despite U.S. bans on doing business with Tehran.

Top Iranian officials also have moved in recent days to lower expectations that the relief efforts might spark a sustained dialogue between the two countries.

President Mohammed Khatami said on 30 January 2003 that humanitarian issues should not be intertwined with what he termed "deep" political problems: "[U.S. humanitarian aid] has nothing to do with the political issues dividing our two nations. These have deep roots, and U.S. behavior toward Iran has long been bad."

The Iranian president said that only if Tehran sees a "change both in the tone and behavior of the U.S. administration, then a new situation will develop in our relations."

The statements from the two countries' presidents came after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that Iran's welcome of American aid could be a sign of a new attitude developing in the Iranian leadership.

Speaking with "The Washington Post" on 30 January 2003, Powell said Iran's "new attitude" included not just accepting U.S. humanitarian help but also allowing United Nations inspections of the country's nuclear facilities, as well as diplomatic overtures to moderate Arab countries.

Powell indicated such steps offer possible dialogue at what he called an "appropriate point in the future."

After the interview -- which sparked media debate over what timeframe Powell might consider as an "appropriate point" in the future -- a spokesman for the U.S. State Department sought to clarify the remarks but added few details. Adam Ereli told a briefing on 30 January 2003: "Secretary Powell's comments speak for themselves. He says there are positive developments. Those positive developments are there for everybody to see. There remain serious concerns. We are open to a dialogue at an appropriate time."

Ereli said Washington's concerns include Iran's alleged support for Palestinian militant groups, its lack of cooperation on suspected Al-Qaeda members held in Iran, and still unfulfilled commitments on its nuclear program.

"Iran's follow-through on its commitments to the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and to the international community are critical," Ereli added.

The United States and Iran have not had formal relations since Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 hostages for 444 days in the wake of the Islamic Revolution.

Still, if the presidential-level statements from both Tehran and Washington now appear likely to put an end to media speculation about "earthquake diplomacy," some signs remain that the Bam tragedy may yet influence political developments in the months ahead.

In one of the strongest welcomes for U.S. humanitarian aid, Iran's deputy parliament speaker said yesterday that Tehran will reciprocate Washington's goodwill gesture. Mohammed Reza Khatami, the brother of the president, said parliament is now evaluating what he called the U.S. government's "positive behavior" and that "goodwill will be answered by goodwill."

The United States and Iran have made tentative steps at improving relations at times over the past years, but efforts to start formal negotiations have been derailed by one or both sides setting preconditions for talks.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ruled out any negotiations with Washington after the United States branded Iran as part of an "axis of evil." The Bush administration has at times signaled that it views a regime change in Tehran as necessary for any talks to be successful.

Still, the two sides are reported to have held secret talks to ease tensions over Afghanistan and Iraq. And that suggests that, despite the obstacles to public dialogue, each side is gradually coming to regard the other as a more pragmatic rival -- and perhaps one with whom at least some understandings can be reached. The events in Bam may now heighten those feelings.