Giving Aid To The Enemy

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The 84 members of the U.S. relief team stationed inside the devastated Iranian city of Bam had not come to party. They were trained to tread lightly in an officially hostile land. And their mission, to aid survivors of Bam's cataclysmic Dec. 26 earthquake, did not incline them to celebration, even if it was New Year's Eve. Thus they were moved when a band of Iranian medics showed up at midnight last Wednesday bearing candies and pastries. A few miles from the scene of some 30,000 deaths, in sight of quarters decorated with large U.S. flags, the groups traded salutations for an auspicious new year. "It turned into a real emotional meeting," says Marty Bahamonde, one of the Americans. "Some of our people had to cry."

In fact, the meeting was historic. The last significant official U.S. presence in Iran was involuntary--52 Americans held hostage for 444 days in the U.S. embassy starting in 1979. Before the relief workers' arrival in their C-5 transport planes, the last U.S. military aircraft to land in Iran was part of the botched 1980 hostage rescue. Both the U.S. and Iranian governments described the current mission as strictly humanitarian, and, indeed, last Friday the Iranians rebuffed a U.S. offer to send a second, higher-powered delegation that would have included Senator Elizabeth Dole and an unnamed Bush family member. But the goodwill on the ground was unmistakable. Mohammad Reza Tammasi, the manager of Bam's huge foreign-aid campsite, told the Americans, "We hope your arrival here will help improve relations between our countries."

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Being the ministering angel from the Great Satan is an interesting position. The U.S. team was met on the tarmac by an Iranian deputy minister. Its equipment was not examined, nor were its members fingerprinted, as American visitors normally would be. In Bam a Revolutionary Guard exclaimed, "Are they Americans? I love them!" A member of the hard-line Baseej militia snapped, "I don't care if they come to help. I hate them." (Despite such animosity, the Americans ended up treating a Baseej member a few days later.) Several Iranian men appeared to be surveilling the U.S. compound with video cameras. Four others arrived with a Christmas tree.

With the quake's first survivors already treated by the time they arrived, the Americans were left to deal with conventional E.R. complaints. A young woman had rising blood pressure in her skull; a man needed a cast repair. Harvard Medical School professor Gary Fleisher refrained from touching an 11-year-old girl until assured by an Iranian that it would not offend local mores for a male doctor to tend to her. Iranian doctors taught the Americans to weed out addicts who showed up looking for morphine; before the quake, Bam authorities had been battling a thriving heroin trade. A local physician, put out by the presence of the Americans, was calmed by an official's promise that he would benefit from their $8 million of equipment when they left. In fact, the transfer is still up in the air.

Actually, a great deal is up in the air between the two nations, which have had no official relations since the hostage crisis. In 2002, President Bush, alarmed by Iran's nuclear ambitions, included the country in his "axis of evil" formulation. But Iran has supported postwar peace in Afghanistan and Iraq and recently agreed to accept surprise nuclear inspections. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Washington Post last week that the U.S. was now open to "the possibility of dialogue" with Tehran.

Bush's offer to send Dole and a family member seemed aimed at both doing good and getting the best publicity for his charitable buck. Its rejection was unsurprising. Iranian parliamentary elections are Feb. 20, and dominant hard-line clerics are worried that friendly American behavior might aid reformers, who are less anti-Western than the conservatives. The Administration is left with the same sort of New Year's solace as its medical team: you heal the Baseejist not because he likes you but because he is another human being. And who knows? Somewhere down the line he may remember the favor.