US relations with Tehran begin to thaw in the aftermath of disaster

Click to follow
The Independent US

The United States this weekend loosened the ice that has frozen its relations with Iran for decades, joining the worldwide effort to speed emergency supplies and personnel to the devastating earthquake in Bam. Yesterday, two American cargo planes landed in Kerman, the provincial capital, the first US flights to land in Iran in more than 10 years.

The United States this weekend loosened the ice that has frozen its relations with Iran for decades, joining the worldwide effort to speed emergency supplies and personnel to the devastating earthquake in Bam. Yesterday, two American cargo planes landed in Kerman, the provincial capital, the first US flights to land in Iran in more than 10 years.

Washington is sending 150,000 tons of medical supplies and 200 emergency workers and disaster experts, a show of humanitarian diplomacy that has necessitated a level of formal contact between American and Iranian officials barely seen since 1979. That year, when Jimmy Carter was President, students overran the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

There have been no formal diplomatic relations between the two countries since the hostage crisis. Nearly two years ago, President George Bush declared that Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, belonged to an "axis of evil" that was fostering terrorism in the world.

Yet on Friday, when the full extent of the catastrophe was becoming apparent, Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, phoned the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Zarif, and personally offered American condolences and aid. Such direct contact with the Iranians is rare. Normally, Washington resorts to communicating with Iran through the Swiss government. And it drew a warm response. "We greatly welcome any assistance from the United States," Akbar Alavi, the governor of Kerman, said.

But the US has been at pains to insist that the resumption of dialogue is driven by only compassion and not by any fundamental change of diplomatic position. Points of tension between Iran and Washington range from the country's nuclear weapons ambitions as well as terrorism.

"There is no political angle," a State Department spokes-man, Lou Fintor, said. "There is a human catastrophe in Iran and our only mission is to alleviate the human suffering. These efforts will not alter the tone or intensity of our dialogue with the Iranians on other matters of grave concern."

But some experts suggest the crisis may be used by those in the State Department who have long chafed at Mr Bush's isolationist stance on Iran and other countries. Those who favour more engagement with such countries may include the Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

"I think what we're seeing is the State Department, Powell and Armitage in particular, trying to take advantage of the situation to try to open the door to Iran a little bit," Daniel Brumberg, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said. "The question is whether the neo-conservatives will slam the door shut."

Perhaps more important is deciphering whether the American aid will soften attitudes inside Iran toward the US. Because American teams will be working through umbrella aid organisations, including the International Red Cross, the fact of America helping may be lost on ordinary Iranians.

"It's certainly not going to change the opinion of the anti-American crowd," Gregory Gause, director of Middle East Studies at the University of Vermont, said. Iran has made it clear that aid from everywhere would be accepted, except from its sworn enemy, Israel.

Comments