WASHINGTON – Could a devastating earthquake that killed upwards of 30,000 people be the event that finally improves U.S. relations with Iran, one-third of President Bush's "axis of evil (search)"?
So far, any all-out thaw seems unlikely, at least right away. On Friday, Iran said no to a U.S. offer to send a high-profile delegation to Iran on a humanitarian mission, preferring that the U.S. proposal be "held in abeyance."
But the nature of the catastrophe — a Dec. 26 earthquake that destroyed much of the ancient city of Bam — and the fast U.S. public offers of aid have led some to predict a change for the better is possible.
"An earthquake became the pretext for an opening that was struggling to be opened over at least the last six to eight months," argued Hooshang Amirahmadi (search), president of the American-Iranian Council in New Jersey, and a professor at Rutgers University.
The U.S. outreach on earthquake aid comes several weeks after Iran agreed to allow surprise international inspections of its nuclear facilities. For some, this was a sign the Iranian government was trying to cooperate, at least in the area of weapons proliferation.
"The conditions for the kind of moment you're seeing now have been gradually growing," Amirahmadi said, adding he hopes the movement toward better relations "will be more sustainable this time."
With the earthquake, the United States already has sent Iran several planes of humanitarian relief, including teams of doctors and aid workers. Plus, Bush announced that sanctions put in place during the 1979 hostage crisis would be temporarily eased so that individuals and firms could transfer funds to Iran for disaster relief.
The administration had wanted to send former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (search), R-N.C., a former director of the American Red Cross, along with other unnamed administration officials and a member of the Bush family, as part of a relief mission.
But after hearing back from Iranian officials, the administration said it was holding off.
Although Iranian leaders did not make public statements commenting on the U.S. offer, state-run radio in the country on Friday charged that Bush had "once again demonstrated that America's interfering and hostile policy against Iran has not altered at all."
Since the 1979 hostage crisis, not only have there been no formal diplomatic ties, but Iran has been a consistent member of the U.S. State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism. In fact, the State Department said Iran was one of the most active sponsors of terrorism in 2002.
Iran's sincerity in cracking down on Al Qaeda (search) has been "mixed," said the State Department in 2003. Iran is also accused of sponsoring anti-Israeli terrorist groups like Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad.
Bush has said that reaching out to the Iranians now does not change his administration's demands, which include a dismantling of Iran's nuclear weapons program and cracking down on suspected Al Qaeda terrorists there. In 2002, Bush called Iran, Iraq and North Korea the "Axis of Evil."
"What we are doing in Iran is showing the Iranian people the American people care, that we've got great compassion for human suffering," the president said from his Texas ranch on Jan. 1. But Bush said U.S. outreach does not diminish calls for a change in the hard-line fundamentalist regime there.
"The Iranian government must listen to the voices of of those who long for freedom, must turn over the Al Qaeda that are in their custody and must abandon their nuclear weapons program," he said.
For some analysts on Iran, this is the right tone to take.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, president of Strategic Policy Consulting, Inc. (search), a Washington, D.C.-based firm that supports the movement against the current regime in Iran, cautions against dealing directly with the Iranian regime. But Jafarzadeh said U.S. officials should seize the moment to foster improved relations through the people.
"I think that the humanitarian aid to the Iranian people should be separated from relations with the Iranian regime," he said. "President Bush is absolutely right in reaching out to the people of Iran by emphasizing that the Iranian government should listen to the voices of those Iranians who long for freedom. You cannot expect any success until (Capital City) Tehran alters its behaviors."
Nile Gardiner, a foreign policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., agrees.
"The situation should not change as far as identifying Iran as a rogue state," he said. "But I do think that it has helped to change the image of the United States among the Iranian people. The main focus to promote internal reform and try to encourage internal change in the country."
This is not the first time an earthquake has offered an opening for improved dialogue between two nations in a diplomatic standoff, points out Christopher Prebble, foreign policy studies director at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
"I can think of a few parallels where a humanitarian crisis or natural disaster has softened both sides," he said. "So much of an adversarial relationship is based on our perceptions of differences. Then something like an earthquake happens and it brings home that we are more alike than different."
After an earthquake and subsequent fires killed more than 140,000 Japanese on Sept. 1, 1923, in Tokyo, the United States rushed disaster relief assistance to Japan, despite strained diplomatic relations.
"(President Calvin) Coolidge sent, without hesitation, a fair amount of help," said Prebble. "He said this was a humanitarian crisis and our relations notwithstanding, we want to pledge our help."
The aid helped to ease tensions, but any improvements were reversed a year later, when the U.S. passed a harsh new immigration law aimed at stemming the flow of Japanese workers into the U.S.
U.S. diplomacy with Iran is at a crossroads, some analysts on Iran said, adding that American officials need to maintain an important balance of appealing to ordinary Iranians, while keeping up a firm stance against the fundamentalist regime ruling Tehran.
"I wouldn't read any ulterior motive into it, but one of the byproducts of American aid is to win over the hearts and minds of Iranians," said Gardiner. However, "we're only going to see a thaw in relations if there is a significant change in the government there in the country."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.