The United States is weighing the possibility of sending U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole to Iran as part of a mission to deliver earthquake relief assistance, an U.S. administration official said Friday.
If Dole, a former president of the American Red Cross, does make the trip, it would send a clear signal of American interest in providing assistance in connection with the tragedy as a prelude to a possible political opening to Tehran.
The U.S. administration also may send a member President George W. Bush's family to accompany Dole if the mission receives a green light, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The possibility of a Dole mission was first reported in Friday's editions of The Washington Post.
Sources tell CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller the U.S. is waiting on an answer from Iran whether it will allow a high-profile American delegation make a humanitarian visit.
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 U.S. 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.
Bush designated Iran — along with Iraq and North Korea — 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 officials from President Ronald Reagan's administration, 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 was vacationing.
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.
U.S. 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.