Human tragedy forces US to rethink hard line

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If there is some small consolation to be had in the horrific loss of life from the Iranian earthquake, it is that the disaster is likely to strengthen the growing ties between Iran and the outside world and further rein in the US neo-conservative hawks itching to deal with the Tehran mullahs the way they dealt with Saddam Hussein.

Images of the levelled city of Bam were displayed on the front pages of US newspapers and played prominently on the 24-hour cable news channels, eliciting sympathy from even the most hard-hearted of commentators. President George Bush, who lumped Iran with Iraq and North Korea into the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address two years ago, issued a statement from his Texas ranch expressing his condolences.

"Laura and I ... are greatly saddened by the loss of life, injuries and widespread damage to this ancient city," the statement said. "The thoughts of all Americans are with the victims and their families at this time, and we stand ready to help the people of Iran."

In Iran, the moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, immediately opened the door to foreign aid and rescue workers. "The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all of our needs," he said.

Among the first countries to respond were Russia, which sent search experts and doctors yesterday morning, Italy, France, Turkey and Jordan. The Czech Republic offered aid, as did Germany, Spain and Belgium. Although the United States was slower to mobilise, firefighters from Los Angeles - which has the largest population of Iranians of any city outside Tehran - assembled a rescue team and said they were ready to leave any time.

Such an expression of international solidarity is likely to make hardliners nervous, in both Iran and the US. The "axis of evil" rhetoric, exacerbated considerably by concerns surrounding Iran's atomic energy programme, has already had to be toned down in the wake of the recent anti-proliferation deal whereby United Nations inspectors will be allowed to make unannounced visits to Iran's nuclear facilities.

Like the Iranians, the US establishment is split into moderate and hardline factions, with Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, working hard to achieve détente with Tehran while neo-conservatives mutter darkly about striking Iran before the Iranians have a chance to launch a "terrorist" strike against the US.

Quiet diplomacy by Mr Powell over the past few months risked being undermined by new contacts developed between the Pentagon and the Iranian exile Manucher Ghorbanifar, best known as the middleman in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages fiasco in the 1980s. Mr Ghorbanifar gave his Pentagon contacts information - deemed shaky at best - about Saddam smuggling enriched uranium into Iran.