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Iran/U.S.: Hopes Of Bilateral 'Earthquake Diplomacy' Appear To Be Crumbling

Hopes for a thaw in relations between the United States and Iran due to "earthquake diplomacy" appear to be waning. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said yesterday that U.S. contributions of humanitarian aid to the victims of the Bam earthquake do not represent an improvement in relations. His comments echo those of U.S. President George W. Bush, who has said Tehran needs to do more if it wants closer relations.

Prague, 9 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said yesterday that Washington continues to show "basic hostility" toward Tehran.

In his first reaction to U.S. contributions of humanitarian aid for the victims of last month's devastating earthquake in Bam, Khamenei said Iran "had to accept [U.S. aid] because it was destined for the people." In a speech broadcast on state television, Khamenei said there has been no change in U.S. attitudes toward Iran.

"U.S. officials have not shown any sign of reduction of enmity against Iran's Islamic establishment and the Iranian people. Meanwhile, they shamelessly accuse the nation, the government, the establishment and make threats," Khamenei said. Khamenei has the final say in all matters related to the Islamic republic.

Khamenei insisted that U.S. humanitarian aid has nothing to do with improved relations between the two countries. In his speech, Khamenei said U.S. officials have simply used the Bam earthquake as "an pursue their political goals." However, he said that if the United States "were to change its attitude, we are not people who are obstinate toward anyone."

Other Iranian conservatives also have downplayed U.S. relief efforts and reacted angrily to the positive reactions by Iranian reformists to what some have called the start of a new trend in Iranian-U.S. ties.

Prior to Khamenei's speech, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi had said Tehran was willing to resume talks with the United States based on mutual respect. "Iran is ready to negotiate with all countries -- and America is no exception," Kharrazi told state television. "If [Washington] adopts a new approach to Iran and is ready to interact with us based on mutual respect and the principle of equality, the atmosphere will change remarkably."

The contradictory remarks highlight the split between the two factions of the Iranian establishment.

Shortly after the massive earthquake in Bam, Washington sent teams of aid workers, medicine, and food to Iran. Iran allowed U.S. flights to land in the country for the first time in decades. The United States also temporarily lifted some economic sanctions against Iran in order to speed up the flow of humanitarian relief.

Washington's offer to send a high-level delegation to Iran to further assess the humanitarian situation in Bam was declined by the Iranian government.

Yesterday in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said U.S. President George W. Bush was quick to send aid to Iran, but he added that it does not represent a political breakthrough. "The president was quick to respond [to the earthquake], and he gave us directions to get in touch with the Iranians very quickly and offer our assistance, and we did that, and they responded very quickly," Powell said. "This is not a political breakthrough, but it was nevertheless a human breakthrough in the sense that help was offered when it was needed -- and it was accepted."

On 1 January, Bush -- who has labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil" -- praised Tehran's willingness to accept U.S. aid flights but said the Iranian government must first address U.S. concerns before there can be any substantive improvements in relations.

"What we're doing in Iran is we're showing the Iranian people the American people care. We've got great compassion for human suffering, and [we will] 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 [members] 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.

Iran's influential former president, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, said today that Bush's remarks had undermined a possible thaw in relations. Speaking at Friday prayers in Tehran, Rafsanjani said Tehran had been encouraged by U.S. humanitarian relief but that Bush had spoiled any chance of an improvement in ties by repeating the "old allegations" about Iran and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and human rights. He said, "If you want to extend a hand of friendship and a new approach, you shouldn't repeat the old words."

Some analysts say some kind of rapprochement between Tehran and Washington is inevitable in the long term, however. Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam is a professor of political science in Tehran. He told Radio Farda correspondent Baktash Khamsehpour that Iranian conservatives who are opposed to the resumption of ties with the United States are under increasing pressure.

"There are voices of protest from each corner, protest over why there should be animosity between Iran and the U.S., since this animosity has brought tremendous harm to Iran's national interests in the Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan [and] in the future of Iraq," he said.

Iran's reformist faction has asked the pro-reform government of President Mohammad Khatami to take steps aimed at an eventual detente between Tehran and Washington.

The United States cut its ties with Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Diplomats from the two nations have reportedly held secret talks in Geneva over the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

An Iranian news website close to the reformist camp reported this week that Iran has sent a letter to U.S. officials through Jordanian channels setting out conditions for the resumption of ties. The content of the letter has not been disclosed.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.