WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States offered aid to Iran after a devastating earthquake but also kept up pressure over Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme.
President George W. Bush made a point of offering sympathy and assistance while at a North American summit in Mexico.
“We obviously have differences with the Iranian government but we do care about the suffering of Iranian people,” he said.
The powerful earthquake struck western Iran, leaving at least 70 dead and 1,265 injured. Washington offered shelter for 100,000 people.
The State Department said Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns telephoned Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations to offer assistance, a rare direct contact between the two countries that have had no diplomatic relations for more than two decades.
“Nick offered the condolences of the US government to the people of Iran, the government of Iran for the loss of lives and on behalf of the US government, offered our assistance to the families of the victims,” State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters.
The aid would include blankets, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits, water units and temporary shelters for 100,000 people as well as an intermediate grant of 50,000 dollars for non-governmental organizations, Ereli said.
Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Javad Zarif, indicated he would consult with his government before responding, the spokesman said.
In 2003, the US government sent assistance when an even more lethal quake struck the southern Iranian town of Bam. Tehran refused an offer of aid last year after another earthquake.
The White House also issued a statement from Bush and his wife, Laura, about the quake. “Our thoughts and prayers are with families and individuals who have lost loved ones,” they said.
But Bush also renewed US condemnation of the Iranian government’s nuclear program which Washington and its allies believe hides an attempt to develop an atomic bomb.
The US leader reaffirmed Washington’s view that if Iran gets a nuclear weapon it would be “a serious threat to world security” and urged Tehran to heed international warnings or risk further isolation.
“There is common agreement that the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon, the capacity to make a nuclear weapon or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon,” Bush said.
“If they want to participate in the international order of things, if they don’t want to isolate themselves, they must listen very carefully to what we’re saying with unified voice,” he said.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany have been holding talks this week on what action to take if Iran ignores a UN Security Council statement issued Wednesday calling on it to halt uranium enrichment in 30 days.
Bush said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was working to forge a consensus among the major powers that would send a clear message to Tehran that would ensure it did not obtain nuclear weapons.
“In other words, we agree on a goal. Now the question is how do we work together to achieve that goal,” he said.
The US government also expressed concern over Iran’s successful test of a new radar-evading missile, which it alleges is part of a plan to build an eventual nuclear arsenal.
Ereli said the move “demonstrates that Iran has a very active and aggressive military program under way.”
Their program includes “efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction as well as delivery systems,” the State Department spokesman said.