U.S. warms to prospects of new dialogue with Iran
By Robin Wright
Dec. 30, 2003
The United States is open to restoring a dialogue with Iran after "encouraging" moves by the Islamic republic in recent months, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday.
Iranian leaders have agreed to allow surprise inspections of the country's nuclear energy program, have made overtures to moderate Arab governments and, in the past week, have accepted direct U.S. help as the country struggles with the effects of a devastating earthquake.
"There are things happening, and therefore we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future," Powell, who is recovering from surgery for prostate cancer, said in an interview. "All of those things taken together show, it seems to me, a new attitude in Iran in dealing with these issues -- not one of total, open generosity. But they realize that the world is watching and the world is prepared to take action."
Powell's public assessment comes as the administration is reviewing its policy on Iran for the third time since President Bush took office, other U.S. officials said.
A thorny issue
Iran has been one of the thorniest issues for the administration. U.S. officials have been deeply divided over whether to engage Iran, as they have attempted with North Korea, or to support regime change, as with Iraq. An original policy review on Iran drifted into an impasse and was revived twice -- before the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which border Iran.
But Iran's agreement to international inspections and the U.S. success in getting Libya to surrender its deadliest weapons programs have fostered new interest in seeing whether diplomacy will work.
The United States still has significant differences with Iran, a country Bush called part of an "axis of evil," along with North Korea and Iraq, in his 2002 State of the Union address. They include Tehran's support of groups such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, and its opposition to the Middle East peace process.
"We still have concerns about terrorist activities, of course, and there are other issues with respect to al Qaeda and other matters that we'll have to keep in mind," Powell said.
U.S. officials have been encouraged by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's meetings with Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They were the first talks since Iran's 1979 revolution with leaders of the two key Arab states that made peace with Israel.
Diplomatic ties between Iran and Egypt were severed in 1980, when Cairo offered asylum to the deposed shah. Egypt also supported Iraq during the 1980-88 war with Iran. Khatami and Mubarak held talks in Geneva earlier this month on the sidelines of a U.N. technology summit. Iran invited Mubarak to visit in February for a summit of developing nations.
Jordan's monarch visited Tehran in September, when he tried to broker an arrangement whereby Iran would deport the more than 70 al Qaeda operatives it has detained, Jordanian officials said. The move is pivotal in renewing the U.S.-Iran dialogue that was scrapped in May, when Washington charged that al Qaeda operatives held in Iran were linked to three suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia.
Jordan's diplomatic initiative continues, with the foreign minister traveling to Iran earlier this month. In two meetings since with Bush, King Abdullah has pressed Washington to consider resuming talks to Iran under U.N. auspices, officials said.
Other Arab governments have urged the administration to renew talks -- and the top foreign policy team is discussing options, U.S. officials say.
"There is genuine interest in taking a look again at how we work this dialogue and how we might take a step forward and on what issues," a senior U.S. official said. "But I've seen it before. I've also seen the Iranians screw it up."
A call for action
The administration wants additional reassurances. "We've heard promises and predictions, and we want to see action. If we start seeing action -- on al Qaeda, the nuclear issue, Hamas and Hezbollah -- we'll see what we can do," said a senior State Department official. "There's been a lot of talk, but we need to see them walk the walk."
A day after Iran signed the accord allowing inspections of its nuclear sites, Khatami told a World Council of Churches meeting in Geneva that nuclear weapons were incompatible with Islamic tenets. "As Muslims, our religious faith should not allow us to seek nuclear weapons," Khatami said. "The Islam I know does not have a use for them."
Indications of a possible thaw in the U.S. policy toward Iran came as the United States dispatched emergency humanitarian aid to the earthquake-ravaged city of Bam, where more than a quarter of the 80,000 population is estimated to have died.
Condolences from an adversary
Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage called Iran's U.N. envoy, Javad Zarif, in Tehran to offer help and express condolences shortly after the Friday disaster. He received a call in less than an hour from Zarif accepting the aid -- to be delivered directly, not channeled through the United Nations, as in the past, U.S. officials noted yesterday.
U.S. military planes arrived in Iran yesterday for the first time since the 1980 attempt to rescue 52 American hostages held in the seized U.S. Embassy, the State Department said.
The Agency for International Development dispatched a seven-member disaster assistance response team, as well as 77 technical and medical specialists from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team. Iran, too, is still tentative about the dialogue, although Tehran recently told European and Arab envoys that it is interested in renewing discussions.
"We appreciate the importance of the humanitarian gesture and the call from Mr. Armitage," Zarif said in a telephone interview from Tehran yesterday. "But the United States said this is for humanitarian purposes, and that is how we have taken it."
A senior Iranian official added, however, that if Washington is willing to look at the situation "more realistically," then Iran is willing to reciprocate. "What is needed for any cooperation is confidence," the official said. http://msnbc.msn.com/Default.aspx?id=3834257&p1=0
Iran's capital should be moved, says quake expert
Iran's capital is in such a perilous location it should be moved, according to a leading Iranian earthquake expert. The sprawling concrete jungle of Tehran is perched on lethal geological faults and experts estimate six percent of the population, or some 720,000 people, could die if "the big one" shakes its ramshackle buildings to the ground.
Bahram Akasheh, professor of geophysics at Tehran University, has formally suggested to President Mohammad Khatami that the centre of government be moved deeper into the interior. "It would be better to have the capital in somewhere near Isfahan: that would be safer. Other countries have changed their capital without any adverse effect," he said.
Iranian monarch Shah Abbas the Great made Isfahan in central Iran his capital in the late 16th century. Government was moved to Tehran in 1788 and around 12 million people now live there. Akasheh painted a grim portrait of the effect an earthquake measuring around six on the Richter scale, razing or rendering uninhabitable more than 80 percent of buildings in Tehran.
"Iran would be decapitated," he said, adding that such a disaster was only a question of time. "The Alborz mountain area is very active seismologically," he said, referring to the towering range that looms over Tehran, itself created by shuffling geological plate activity.
"We can expect an earthquake somewhere beneath eight on the Richter scale, maybe about 7.8," he continued. Some 35,000 people were killed in 1990 when earthquakes of up to 7.7 on the Richter scale hit the northwest of Iran. Tehran was hit by a quake of about seven on the Richter scale in 1830.
Iran has no plans to move its seat of government though Khatami said ministers would examine Akasheh's proposals.
Iranian newspapers were quick to praise superior building standards in Japan where a quake measuring eight on the Richter scale killed only one person last month. One foreign civil engineer working in Iran said the gimcrack building methods he saw each day filled him with terror.
Tehran's hasty building boom was fuelled by refugees pouring in from border cities during the bloody 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The high-rises continue to be flung up as the city's population swells up to and beyond 12 million. Akasheh said little heed was paid to regulations aimed at ensuring building design and materials could withstand quakes.
"Building regulations were introduced but nobody actually does everything that the regulations stipulate," said Akasheh. He said one of the most stubborn challenges was to breach the air of fatalism with which Iranians view earthquakes.
"Earthquake education is very poor in Iran. Most people think what God wills, will happen. This is absolutely wrong. This thinking is poisonous," he said. Farhad, 32, a grocer in north Tehran, thought the risks were exaggerated. "Don't worry about an earthquake in Tehran. They are a problem up north, on the Caspian. You don't get serious ones here," he said.
Christian Oliver Reuters
Businesses in Tehran warned of earthquake risk
The IRNA newsagency has reported that the head of the Tehran Crisis Management and Prevention Center, Ali Danesh, has issued a warning over the severe damage that will be caused if Iran's Rey and Mosha faults become active under present infrastructure conditions.
He told a meeting of experts that studies indicate that in the case of such an earthquake 4,000 gas and 540 water pipeline disruptions would occur in the region of Tehran, along with widespread electricity failures. Construction vulnerabilities would result in the collapse of 5,500 buildings and six overpasses along the city's main highways.
Mr. Danesh called on the local authorities in the area to further examine the twenty crisis mitigation proposals that his Center has drawn up.
9th July 2003
Comment: This was published before the quake in Bam.