TEHRAN, Iran – Britain's Prince Charles headed Monday to the earthquake-flattened city of Bam after meeting with President Mohammed Khatami on the first visit to Iran in 33 years by a member of the British royal family.
After a handshake at the Red Palace (search) in central Tehran, Prince Charles inquired about Khatami's recent back pain, which had confined him to his home for several days.
"It's due to old age," the 61-year-old president said with a smile, standing straight and with no visible signs of pain.
His smile, however, appeared forced and his face was not as fresh as journalists usually see him. Khatami has been under tremendous pressure about Feb. 20 legislative elections that he says will be unfair because more than 2,000 pro-reform candidates have been banned from running by a hard-line council.
There was no immediate comment from Khatami's office about his hour-long private discussions with Prince Charles.
The prince arrived in Tehran late Sunday after dropping in on British troops in a high-security visit to the southern Iraqi city of Basra (search). There, dressed in desert camouflage and boots, he sipped tea with soldiers and praised them for their role in securing in southern Iraq.
After the meeting with Khatami, the prince left for Bam (search), where more than 41,000 people died in a December earthquake that destroyed the ancient southeastern city.
Charles' visit ostensibly was planned so he could see quake aid work in Bam. However, the visit prompted speculation of political motives, perhaps to further improve relations strained after the 1979 Islamic revolution. The British Embassy asserted the prince's trip had no political implications.
"The prince is a patron of the British Red Cross and is visiting Iran in that role. It's an official but completely a nonpolitical visit," said Andrew Dunn, First Secretary at the British Embassy in Tehran.
The prince is accompanied by a small entourage that includes the head of the British Red Cross, Sir Nicholas Young.
A magnitude-6.6 quake flattened the southeastern city of Bam on Dec. 26, killing more than 41,000 people and injuring more than 15,000. The quake also leveled most of the ancient city, including the Arg-e-Bam (search), or Citadel of Bam, the world's largest mud-brick fortress.
On Friday, Charles made an appeal in London for funds to aid quake survivors.
Dunn said Charles and Young will assess how the British Red Cross can help the survivors and try to resume agricultural life in the area.
The last time a British royal family member visited Iran was in 1971, when Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Anne attended grand celebrations marking 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran.
Now, three decades later, Charles is visiting a completely different Iran, ruled by hard-line clerics who routinely have denounced British support of the former shah.
People on the streets of Tehran were surprised by Charles' visit.
"I won't believe a British royal figure is in Iran unless I see it by my own eyes," said Hadi Taqipour, a store clerk.
With Britain often serving as a bridge between Iran and the West, analysts say the unexpected trip will have political repercussions.
Political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand said Charles' visit could strengthen hard-liners' position in the power struggle with reformists that has dominated Iranian politics in recent years. That struggle has intensified in the run-up to Feb. 20 elections, with reformists accusing hard-liners of rigging the polls through disqualifying reformist candidates to ensure a hard-line parliament.
"Whether Charles means it or not, the trip will be interpreted as boosting the position of hard-liners," he said.