U.S. Eases Restrictions on Assisting Iranians

The Bush administration on Wednesday eased restrictions on assistance to Iran (search) in response to the country's earthquake.

"Getting aid to those so greatly affected by this devastating earthquake is a top priority," Treasury Secretary John Snow said.

The goal, Snow said, was speeding up the process of helping Iranians.

Blanket licenses are being issued to permit American firms and individuals to transfer funds to Iran, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced.

Also, export of transportation equipment, satellite telephones and radio and personal computing systems usually off limits to Iran will be permitted to help manage relief efforts, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

A 90-day period, which began last Saturday, has been set to permit Americans to donate funds to private organizations to be used for relief and reconstruction efforts, the Treasury office said.

Iranians listed by the U.S. government as suspected financiers of terrorism will remain barred from receiving funds.

Currently it is illegal to transfer funds to Iran because of sanctions on Tehran (search), dating to 1979. The result is individual licenses for exceptions to the rule are required, and that can be a time-consuming process, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.

Donations of humanitarian relief items such as food, certain medicines, clothing and tents do not require a license.

Secretary of State Colin Powell consulted members of Congress and concluded that the earthquake had created extraordinary humanitarian needs and that it was in the U.S. national interest to provide help, deputy White House press secretary Trent Duffy said in a statement.

"The Iranian people deserve and need the assistance of the international community to help them recover from the catastrophic results of last week's earthquake," Duffy said. "The American people want to help, and share great concern and sympathy for those families and individuals who lost loved ones, their homes and possessions."

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage placed a phone call to Iran's U.N. envoy, Javad Zariv, who was in Tehran at the time of the tragedy, and pledged U.S. assistance in light of the disaster.

But while Zariv accepted the offer and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (search) thanked the United States, Khatami said there could be no change in a nearly 25-year estrangement with the United States unless Washington changed its tone and behavior.

Within the Bush administration there continues to be disagreement on how to deal with Iran and on whether democratic change is in the wind in Tehran.

Powell told The Washington Post earlier in the week that there were encouraging developments in Iran and that Tehran was demonstrating a "new attitude" on some issues.

Duffy, accompanying President Bush in Crawford, Texas, cast a different spin.

"We've made clear to the Iranian government on many occasions our grave concerns regarding its support for terrorism, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and other of its activities," Duffy said.

In the meantime, the administration has been speeding relief to Iran where more than 28,000 people perished in the earthquake.

Ereli said the U.S. Agency for International Development had assembled an 84-member team of experts, including 60 physicians from the Boston area and other medical workers.

They arrived in the devastated city of Bam on Tuesday and began setting up a mobile hospital.