WASHINGTON -- The United States will send search-and-rescue teams, food, and medical supplies to its longtime adversary Iran, the White House announced yesterday, as the death toll climbed to at least 20,000 from Friday's massive earthquake that devastated the ancient city of Bam.
More than 200 civilian disaster response specialists are being flown into Iran, while the US military is delivering more than 150,000 pounds of medical supplies from bases in Kuwait. The assistance could be on the ground as early as midafternoon today.
Among them will be a team of 54 doctors and other medical specialists from the Boston area, which left Westover Joint Air Reserve Base yesterday (Story, A23). It will run a self-sufficient field hospital in or near Bam for three weeks.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage personally offered the aid along with US condolences on Friday night to Iran's UN ambassador, Mohammad Zarif. The call was a rare moment of direct official contact with the Iranian government, with which the United States had not had diplomatic relations since revolutionaries overthrew the US-backed Shah in 1979 and took American Embassy workers hostage.
However, the State Department said that while direct contact was appropriate "given the urgency of this situation," it should not be interpreted as an effort to thaw relations with a country once described by President Bush as part of an "axis of evil."
"There is no political angle," said State Department spokesman Lou Fintor. "There is a human catastrophe in Iran and our only mission is to alleviate the human suffering associated with yesterday's earthquake. These efforts will not alter the tone or intensity of our dialogue with the Iranians on other matters of grave concern."
Still, the direct contact may be a sign that some in the Bush administration who have argued for more direct engagement with rogue states see this as a moment of potential, said Daniel Brumberg, a Georgetown University professor and senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has written a book about the Iranian reform movement.
"I think what we're seeing is the State Department -- [Secretary Colin L.] Powell and Armitage in particular -- trying to take advantage of the situation to try to open the door to Iran a little bit," he said. "The question is whether the neoconservatives will slam the door shut."
Nevertheless, Brumberg agreed with a range of Iranian specialists who predicted that the humanitarian aid would not cause a dramatic change in relations between the two governments. While the assistance will be appreciated by the Iranian public, it will not change the minds of the elite hard-line clerics who run Iran, said Gregory Gause, director of the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Vermont.
"Aid to earthquake victims . . . might give the people in the government in Iran who want a more regular relationship with the US an occasion to push the issue again, but it's certainly not going to change the opinion of the anti-American crowd," he said. "That was one of the core issues of the revolution and those who claim to be hanging on to the core values of Ayatollah Khomeini and the revolution aren't going to be impressed by some aid from the US."
Moreover, the American teams will be dealing with Iranian medics and disaster relief agencies rather than coming into direct contact with the theocratic decision makers who still harbor historical grievances with the United States, noted Judith Kipper, co-director of the Middle Eastern studies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"If they [the clerics and US officials] want to talk, they don't need a humanitarian tragedy for the excuse," she noted. "We are talking about Iraq. And the International Atomic Energy Agency is talking about their nuclear program. Humanitarian aid is just humanitarian aid. Still, it's definitely a positive thing. It shows our values. It's welcomed by the Iranians and . . . it's good for the leadership on both sides because it softens things a bit."
But the aid may still serve a political purpose, said Nile Gardiner, the former top foreign policy adviser to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"It's certainly the right thing for the US to do," he said. "I think this is a gesture of support for the people of Iran, but it should not be read in any way as support for the Iranian government. One has to make the distinction beween the government and the people. The Bush administration's strategy is definitely to promote internal reform in Iran and to win over hearts and minds in Iran, and I don't think this is a change in strategy in any way."
Gardiner also downplayed the significance of Armitage's phone call, suggesting that "too much has been made of the perceived divide in the administration over rogue states." He said even if some in the State Department would prefer slightly more dialogue, they still do not approach the European Union's policy of "structured engagement," which he said is "really all about normalizing relations with Iran."
But Georgetown's Brumberg called the disaster relief a "small opportuity to try to budge the relationship a little bit" by giving elements in both governments who want to improve relations some political leverage, which he argued would be a "positive step" even if hard-liners on either side are opposed to it.
"If there were some prospects for real regime change in Iran or for a collapse in the regime, which is what the hard-liners in the Bush administration expect, then we wouldn't have to talk to the Iranians," he said. "But since there's very little prospect of that because the clerical establishment is secure, we have to find ways to talk to them even though the regime is reprehensible because we have some mutual and conflicting interests and neither can be ignored."
The State Department typically communicates with Iran through the Swiss government but has retained the option of using direct contact, so the personal offer of aid is not a change in US policy.
One American tourist was among the dead, and another was injured and hospitalized. Although the United States maintains certain currency restrictions on spending in Iran, Americans can travel there if they obtain visas issued by the Iranian Interests Section of the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington. Consular services are being provided to the injured tourist by the US counterpart to that office in Tehran, which is hosted by the embassy of Switzerland.