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Published: Friday, 1/9/2004

A door slammed shut

America s humanitarian response to the earthquake in Bam, Iran, provided an opportunity for the United States to open doors to that country. President Bush s policy response slammed the door shut.

The ancient city of Bam suffered an earthquake late last month that destroyed approximately 80 percent of its buildings. The death toll stands at an estimated 30,000.

America quickly and correctly offered help, both assistance in trying to extract victims and humanitarian aid to a suffering population in severe winter circumstances. The fact that the Iranian government indicated its willingness to accept the aid, in spite of political antagonism dating from the Iranian revolution in 1979, suggested that there might be a political opportunity to improve relations there as well.

U.S. relations with Iran have been getting slightly better anyway, as the Iranian authorities have taken in recent weeks a considerably more open and reasonable approach to international inspection of its nuclear program.

Leaks in Washington began to indicate that a political delegation, but one with a humanitarian cast provided by its possible leadership by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, and a former president of the American Red Cross, might be headed to Iran.

President Bush closed that door emphatically by stating publicly that Iran also had to take internal political steps, hand over al-Qaeda personnel it is believed to hold, and take other measures before relations could improve.

At that point, Iran said, not surprisingly, with parliamentary elections scheduled next month, thanks for the humanitarian aid but please keep the political delegation: end of opportunity to use the good will generated by the normal American response to disaster and suffering for political gain.

What was going on in the President s head? Why not let a Republican senator with a strong humanitarian background do a little good work for the United States with Iran? Clearly there is ambivalence within this administration about whether to deal diplomatically with America s primary concern with Iran - its possible nuclear weapons program - or to keep Iran high on the axis of evil list and subject to military attack by the United States, or by Israel, which keeps hinting at the possibility.

Whatever is going on, this has to be seen as a missed opportunity. A generous America, responding to natural tragedy, is an America acting at its best. If modest political gain could have been reaped from such action as well, the President should have seized the moment.

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