Iran rebuffed on Friday the Bush administration's offer of a humanitarian delegation headed by a high-profile Republican senator to deliver earthquake relief.
Iran said it prefers that the U.S. proposal to dispatch Sen. Elizabeth Dole (search) of North Carolina, former president of the American Red Cross, to Iran be "held in abeyance" because of the current situation on the ground in Iran. An earthquake on Dec. 26 killed more than 30,000 people.
State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli (search) said the U.S. proposal, submitted Tuesday through U.N. channels, was made for humanitarian, and not for political reasons. "We don't see the response as political either," he said.
White House spokesman Claire Buchan, with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, also said the proposal was made as a part of the administration's efforts to provide quake assistance. "Their decision is understandable," she said, given that Iran is dealing with a massive death toll.
Still, a visit by Dole would have been widely interpreted as a clear signal of American interest in providing earthquake assistance as a prelude to a possible political opening to Iran — a country Bush designated as a member of an international "axis of evil" (search) in January 2002.
And Dole said she hopes the trip is possible.
"I am still hopeful this humanitarian visit will be accepted by the Iranians because the American people are most willing to help," she said Friday in a statement.
She said that after seeing television reports of the earthquake, she called Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) to discuss the possibility of visiting the disaster area along with Marsha Evans, the current president of the American Red Cross. Dole said she also consulted with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist who agreed that such a visit could provide a firsthand assessment of needs in the area.
The United States and Iran broke diplomatic relations shortly after the seizure of U.S. embassy officials in Tehran in 1979. There has been no publicly announced visit by a U.S. government representative to Iran since then.
If the mission had happened and led to better relations with the Islamic state, it would be a foreign policy coup for Bush, said Shireen Hunter, director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Even though Iran said no, Bush can still argue that he extended a friendly hand.
"By taking this initiative, he really now has thrown the ball in the Iranian court," he said.
James Phillips, Middle East expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, isn't surprised that Iran turned down the offer.
"The hard-liners won't bite. They're adamantly opposed to improving relations with the U.S. because they correctly see that as a threat to their power," Phillips said. "The moderates aren't going to bite because they're in the stretch run for parliamentary elections.
"One of the problems of the U.S. reaching out is that if you embrace the moderates, you can discredit them. If they're found to be dealing with the 'Great Satan (USA)' it gives ammunition to their hard line critics."
Officials said the administration has been considering sending a member of President Bush's family to accompany Dole on the mission.
"The fact that he would send a family member is kind of signal that he's very serious about it," Phillips said. "Middle Easterners put more weight on messages sent through family members."
The United States moved quickly this past week to provide assistance to Iran's earthquake victims, insisting that the gesture was nonpolitical.
On Tuesday, the State Department indicated interest in opening a dialogue with Iran so long as it adheres to its international commitments.
Iran itself indicated a change in behavior last month when, under heavy international pressure, it agreed to allow surprise international inspections of its nuclear facilities. Secretary of State Colin Powell, alluding to that development and others, said it suggested a new Iranian attitude on certain issues.
Still, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, said he saw no change in the 25-year U.S.-Iranian estrangement unless Washington changed its tone and behavior.
And on Friday, Iranian State Radio, in a commentary, said the United States was using earthquake aid to create divisions in Iran.
"The Americans, by publicizing their aid to Iran, have ineptly tried to implement their duplicitous policy of creating a rift between the Iranian nation and government," the radio said, adding that "our people's solidarity" will stop that from happening.