WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration virtually ignored Iran's supportive gestures to Iraq yesterday, showing a measure of restraint that some U.S. officials suggested was geared toward minimizing long-standing tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Despite unconfirmed reports from the Middle East this week that rice and flour were flowing into Iraq from Iran, U.S. officials insisted they knew of no evidence that Tehran has broken its pledge to honor the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq.
"Iran has repeatedly said that it's a responsible member of the international community; it is a member of the United Nations and is obligated to carry out the U.N. sanctions [and] has said it would do so," said Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesman. "Absent evidence to the contrary, we would believe that they will do so."
He described any breaks in the embargo so far as "very few" and "minor."
Both Mr. Boucher and White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater declined to respond to the radio broadcast yesterday by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who called the struggle against the United States a "holy war."
Other U.S. officials, speaking privately, expressed little alarm over the broadcast or Monday's resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Iraq that could result in Iranian deliveries of food and medicine in exchange for oil and cash.
"There's nothing to be gained by getting into a ... contest with an ayatollah," one official explained. Iranian compliance with the U.N. sanctions has come under attack within the country, and antagonistic statements from Washington might only encourage a reversal of official Iranian policy, he said.
"I can't imagine the United States is going to jump up and down every time a truckload of food crosses over the border," said another U.S. official.
These officials said they did not believe Iran was likely to satisfy Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's desire for a major rupture in the trade embargo, and they expressed optimism that Iran would continue to show solidarity with the United States in condemning Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
"The Iranians are playing it both ways, but I don't imagine they trust Iraq a lot," said a State Department official who contends that most of the Iranian leadership's recent public statements have been directed mainly at placating radical, anti-American interests within Iran.
Shireen T. Hunter, a former Iranian foreign service officer now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: "All of this coming out of Iran is for internal consumption. It obviously relates to internal pressures in Iran from radicals and seems to be a reaction to all the talk about the possibility of a permanent U.S. military presence [in the Persian Gulf]."