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IRAN - Jan. 1 - Tehran Hints Ties To US May Thaw.

Iranian officials appear to warm to the possibility that an easing of US restrictions on aid to Iran, granted after the devastating earthquake in the city of Bam, could improve the relationship between the two countries. US Treasury Secretary John Snow announced the easing on Dec. 31. For 90 days, he said, Americans will be permitted to donate money to private groups helping in the Bam region, where over 30,000 died in a Dec. 26 earthquake. Snow called it a "top priority" to bring relief to the region, and White House spokesman Trent Duffy said that the Iranian people "deserve and need" international assistance. While Pres. Mohammad Khatami said at first decades of tense US-Iranian relations could not end without a radical change in American policy, several Iranian officials, including the president's brother Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Reza Khatami told Reuters on Jan. 1 the legislature was evaluating the US government's "positive behaviour". He added: "I'm sure that goodwill will be answered with goodwill".

FM Kamal Kharazi also praised as "positive" the US decision to permit money and relief aid to flow to the Bam region. But he urged the US to end permanent sanctions that have been in place much of the time since Iranian radicals stormed the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held dozens of Americans hostage for more than a year. Kharrazi is quoted by IRNA as saying: "Naturally, the permanent and total lifting of the sanctions would introduce a new climate into the relations between the two countries".

(The earthquake occurred at a delicate time diplomatically, with the US and Iran quietly and tentatively exploring ways to improve the long-dismal state of their relationship. Recently, the Bush administration cautiously welcomed the decision by Tehran to permit tougher international inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. And it is eager to point to signs of progress in the region that it could attribute, more or less directly, to its war in Iraq, its case for pre-emptive warfare, and its pointed inclusion of Iran in an "axis of evil" including North Korea).

Officials in Washington and Tehran referred this week to months of quiet efforts to turn a slippery diplomatic corner. "We must look at it more closely", former Iranian Pres. Rafsanjani said in Bam, referring to earthquake assistance from Americans, "but they are in the process of sending positive signals for several months now". And Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview published on Dec. 30 the administration was open to restoring dialogue with Iran after its "encouraging" moves of late. "There are things happening", he told The Washington Post, "and therefore we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future". Powell spoke of "a new attitude in Iran" and of an awareness there that "the world is watching and the world is prepared to take action". Besides Iran's agreement to surprise nuclear inspections and its acceptance of US earthquake aid, Tehran has shown new openness to moderate Arab governments allied with the US.

(In early December, Khatami met briefly in Geneva with Pres. Mubarak of Egypt, and now the two states are preparing to resume diplomatic relations. King Abdullah of Jordan travelled to Tehran in September for talks with Khatami that, similarly, were the first of their kind since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iranian-Egyptian ties have been particularly grim: Egypt supported Iraq in its war against Iran, and Iran celebrated the assassination of Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat. But Egypt recently sent earthquake aid to Iran in a humanitarian effort co-ordinated partly by Mubarak's wife, Suzanne.

(On the US side, after months of indecision on how to treat hundreds of Iranian opposition fighters based in eastern Iraq, the chief US administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer 3rd, said that they would be sent to third countries. The members of the People's Mujahedeen remain under US guard. Bremer's choice was criticised by Tehran, which wanted the fighters to be turned over for trial in Iran. But it amounted to a less confrontational outcome than what was favoured by some in the Bush administration, who have suggested that the group could be used to gain leverage against the Tehran government.

(Khatami, meanwhile, has suggested he might be willing to extradite more than 100 suspected Al Qaeda members to their countries of origin. The US administration, for its part, has become slower to complain of Iranian interference in Iraq. Serious issues remain, however, led by Iran's opposition to the Middle East peace process strongly advocated by Pres. Bush, and Iranian support for groups deemed as terrorists by the US).
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 3, 2004
Words:770
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