Iran has, at least for the time being, turned down a U.S. proposal to send a high-level delegation there to underscore the Bush administration's commitment to help Iran with earthquake relief. The delegation was to have been headed by Senator Elizabeth Dole, former president of the American Red Cross.
The visit would have had major implications given that the two countries have not had diplomatic relations for more than two decades. But Iran has declined the offer, citing logistical difficulties in the earthquake-ravaged area around the southern city of Bam.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters the U.S. motive in making the offer was purely humanitarian and non-political, and that it was taken as such by Iranian authorities.
He said Iran asked that the trip be held in abeyance because of the acute problems in Bam, and said the Bush administration is not pursuing the idea any further for now.
"The point made to us was that the situation on the ground makes it preferable to put the visit in abeyance," he said. "Let's keep in mind what the Iranian government and the people of Iran are dealing with at this time upward of 30,000 people dead or injured. Very difficult logistical problems. So, we don't want to do anything that makes that more difficult. We want to help, so we respect their wishes."
Officials here said Mrs. Dole, who headed the American Red Cross before her election to the Senate in 2002, proposed the Iran visit and the Bush administration endorsed it, suggesting that she be joined by a member of President Bush's family.
The idea was conveyed diplomatically through the Iranian mission to the United Nations, and Iranian officials informed the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, of their decision on Friday.
Had the trip proceeded, it would have been the first of its kind since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran that spurred the break in relations.
Iran accepted a U.S. offer of relief aid the day after the Bam earthquake, triggering the dispatch of more than 80 American relief experts and rescue workers and an unprecedented direct airlift of supplies to Iran by the U.S. Air Force.
President Bush, who has eased U.S. sanctions against Iran to facilitate relief work, told reporters in Texas Thursday the actions demonstrate American compassion in the face of Iranian suffering.
But he also made clear that if Iran wants better political relations with the United States, it must turn over any followers of terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden it has in its custody and rid itself of weapons of mass destruction in a verifiable way.
He also said it is important for Iranian authorities to listen to the voices of students and others there who are demanding political reform.
Iranian President Mohamad Khatami, for his part, has welcomed U.S. humanitarian aid but said its acceptance was not indicative of a warming of relations between the two countries.