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ARKIB : 02/01/2004

Tehran hails US sanctions easing for earthquake victims

BAM (Iran) Jan 1 - Iranian officials Thursday hailed the temporary lifting of US sanctions on Iran in the wake of the Bam earthquake, calling it the latest in a number of positive signals from Washington to the Islamic republic.

``We must look at it more closely, but they are in the process of sending positive signals for several months now,'' former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the powerful Expediency Council arbitration body, said here.

In Tehran, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi said Washington's decision to allow US cash and relief aid to flow to the victims of last week's massive earthquake in this southeastern Iranian city, ``although temporary, is positive.''

``Naturally, the permanent and total lifting of the sanctions would introduce a new climate into the relations between the two countries,'' he was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

Asked about the possibility of a resumption of talks between Washington and Tehran, which call each other part of the ``Axis of Evil'' and ``the Great Satan'' respectively, Rafsanjani said, ``I am not sure but there are signals'' from the United States.

On Tuesday, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami had rejected any dialogue without a radical shift in US policy, despite welcoming American aid, including an 80-strong team of experts whose arrival aboard the first US military planes to land in Iran for more than 20 years caused great excitement here.

``What is the point of negotiations if there is no trust that will enable us to reach a common position,'' Khatami said on a visit to Kerman, capital of the province where Bam is located.

He added: ``I don't think that (the US aid) will change anything (regarding relations between Iran and the United States) without a profound change (in the US attitude).''

But on Wednesday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said: ``The Iranian people deserve and need the assistance of the international community to help them recover. The American people want to help.''

The US Treasury issued a general licence valid for 90 days enabling US citizens and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to make direct contributions of dollars to Iranian and other organisations for relief work in and around Bam.

And the State Department said it was allowing the US government and NGOs to export to Iran sensitive items like transportation equipment, satellite telephones and radio and personal computing items.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who hinted this week that new dialogue between Washington and Tehran could emerge from the ruins of the earthquake, actively campaigned for the suspension of some of the sanctions which have been in place since the 1980s, US officials said.

``There are things happening, and therefore we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future,'' Powell said in an interview with the Washington Post published Tuesday.

He referred to Iran's decision in December to submit to reinforced international inspections of its nuclear energy facilities, which Washington alleges are covers for a secret weapons programme.

For the time being US President George W. Bush's administration appears to be giving Iran the benefit of the doubt on the nuclear issue. It has also reduced its allegations of Iranian interference in neighbouring Iraq, where it pleased Tehran by disarming hundreds of fighters of the opposition People's Mujahedeen.

Washington and Tehran broke diplomatic relations in 1980 after radical students had stormed the US embassy in the Iranian capital and taken its staff hostage.

Since then, the two have engaged in sporadic informal discussions, but have not held a formal dialogue. Only a few months ago there was speculation that Iran's clerical regime would be the next US target after Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

``The Bam earthquake is cracking the wall of mistrust,'' the headline in the moderate Sedaye-e Edalat said Thursday.

Kharazi for his part repeated Tehran's line that the sanctions imposed after the embassy hostage-taking harmed US companies barred from trading with Iran more than Iranians. - AFP

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