BAM, Iran – The presence of American aid workers in the earthquake-devastated city of Bam has split the Iranian leadership, with hardliners accusing the U.S. of meddling even as moderates praise the medical teams.
Iranian state radio, a mouthpiece for the unelected clerical establishment, lashed out at what it called "America's interfering and hostile policy."
"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 unnamed radio commentator added.
Perhaps inadvertently throwing fuel on the fire, the Bush administration briefly considered sending Sen. Elizabeth Dole (search) to Iran as part of a relief mission, an administration official said Friday.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, leader of Iran's moderates, was formally asked whether Tehran would allow a Dole-led delegation, and the somewhat delayed reply was not inviting.
"We have heard back today from the Iranians that given the current situation in Bam, and all that is going on there now, it would be preferable to hold such a visit in abeyance," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters Friday afternoon. "Therefore we are not pursuing it further at the moment."
Dole is a former president of the American Red Cross (search) and the wife of former Sen. Robert Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996.
The Dec. 26 earthquake, measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale, flattened the ancient mud-brick city of Bam and killed at least 30,000 people.
Dole's trip would have sent a clear signal of American interest in a possible political opening to Iran, which Bush has characterized as part of an "axis of evil."
The United States has sent Iran several planes full of humanitarian relief, including teams of doctors and aid workers, despite diplomatic relations severed since the 1979 hostage crisis.
Khatami has thanked Washington for its support but hardline clerics have expressed suspicion about the motives.
"We hate the arrogance of the Americans and we are sure that they haven't come for humanitarian reasons, but for other things like spying," said Abdullah Irani, a mullah from Qum, the main center for Shiite clerics in Iran.
Bush, shortly after the Dec. 26 tragedy, said he was glad the Iranians had accepted U.S. assistance — a rare bit of cooperation between the two nations since their relations were broken by the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
But the president added: "The Iranian government must listen to the voices of those who long for freedom, must turn over Al Qaeda that are in their custody and must abandon their nuclear weapons program."
Iran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. It has acknowledged holding some Al Qaeda militants but calls that an internal matter.
Iranian radio said recent conciliatory remarks from top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, were aimed at concealing Washington's anti-Iran policies at a time when the world's attention is focused on the devastation from the quake.
"One should therefore not trust the expression of opinion, speeches and other optimistic signals that are sent by the American foreign policy authorities toward Iran from time to time," the radio said.
Instead of sending "meager aid" to help quake victims, Washington should unfreeze billions of dollars of Iranian assets, the radio commentary said.
The possible Dole trip, first reported Friday in the Washington Post, would have been as part of a delegation including an unspecified number of Bush administration officials.
It would have been the first public U.S. official visit since 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran for 444 days from Nov. 1979 to Jan. 1981.
Despite the constant and often contradictory rhetoric between the two countries' governments, the U.S. and Iran have managed to stay out of each other's way in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where American forces find themselves tacitly allied to Shiite militiamen trained and financed by Tehran.
In Bam, American aid workers have generally received a warm welcome from Iranian doctors and quake victims, though one cleric was sharply critical Friday and said the American team should go home.
The United Nations plans to complete an assessment of Bam's water, sanitation, food and shelter needs by the middle of next week, said Ted Pearn, manager of the U.N. On-Site Operations Coordination Center (search).
At least five or six countries, including the United States, are working with U.N. agencies to help conduct the review of what is needed in Bam, which was ravaged by the Dec. 26 and its aftershocks.
Bill Garvelink, the U.S. Agency for International Development (search) official leading the team in Bam, said the destruction was worse than in any quake zone he had ever seen.
"It's incredible," Garvelink said. "Bam is literally a rubble pile. I haven't seen any business functioning and you don't see anybody living in their homes."
Many residents have either left or are staying in tents amid the ruins.
With at least 90 percent of the city cleared of corpses, and hopes of finding new survivors all but lost, three international search and rescue teams departed Friday. Seven remain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.