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Iran Declines Dole Quake Mission

Iran informed the United States on Friday that it is not prepared to immediately accept an administration proposal to send Sen. Elizabeth Dole to Iran to deliver earthquake relief supplies.

Iran said it prefers that the U.S. proposal be "held in abeyance" because of the current situation on the ground in Iran, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.

The U.S. proposal was submitted Tuesday through U.N. channels, and the reply was received on Friday.

Ereli said the visit was designed strictly as a humanitarian gesture with no political component.

Nonetheless, a visit by Dole would be widely interpreted as a clear signal of American interest in providing earthquake assistance as a prelude to a possible political opening to Tehran.

Dole, R-N.C., is a former president of the American Red Cross. Officials said the administration has been considering sending a member of President Bush's family to accompany Dole on the mission.

The United States moved quickly this past week to provide assistance to Iran's earthquake victims, insisting that there was no political component to the initiative.

On Tuesday, the State Department indicated interest in opening a dialogue with Iran so long as it adheres to its international commitments.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said he sees no change in the 25-year U.S.-Iranian estrangement unless Washington changes its tone and behavior.

Iran itself indicated a change in behavior last month when, under heavy international pressure, it agreed to allow surprise international inspections of its nuclear facilities. Secretary of State Colin Powell, alluding to that development and others, said it suggested a new Iranian attitude on certain issues.

But Iranian State Radio, in an unattributed commentary on Friday, said the United States was using earthquake aid to create divisions in Iran.

"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 radio said, adding that "our people's solidarity" will stop that from happening.

Bush designated the country as a member of an international "axis of evil" in January 2002.

It is not clear whether any of Dole's activities in Iran would be of an overt political nature. The administration official said discussions about a possible trip were still in the preliminary stages.

But her presence in Iran would unavoidably lead to the conclusion that the United States was seeking an improved relationship with the Islamic republic. The U.S. official said the administration is not insisting on a reciprocal gesture by Iran if the Dole mission is approved.

The United States and Iran broke diplomatic relations shortly after the seizure of U.S. embassy officials in Tehran in 1979. There has been no publicly announced visit by a U.S. government representative to Iran since then.

But two Reagan administration officials, Robert C. McFarlane and Oliver North, visited Iran secretly in 1986 as part of a mission to provide arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages.

U.S. and Iranian officials had contacts in early 2003 on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which border on Iran. The discussions involved an exchange of views rather than an attempt to improve relations.

Bush said Thursday the humanitarian aid the United States is sending to Iran's earthquake victims shows Americans are generous, despite concerns about Iran's support of international terrorism.

"What we're doing in Iran is we're showing the Iranian people the American people care, that we've got great compassion for human suffering," Bush said as he made an appeal directly to Iran's pro-democracy forces in Iran.

The president spoke to reporters in southern Texas, where he and his father went quail hunting on New Year's Day.

The president called on Iran to give up its program to develop nuclear weapons and to stop supporting Islamic militant groups in the Middle East. He also urged Iran to deliver al-Qaida members in Iranian custody to their countries of origin.

White House officials have raised the possibility that Iran's acceptance of American aid following the earthquake may be a sign of slow movement toward better relations between the longtime enemies.

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