|President Bush gets into a plane outside Waco, Texas, on Thursday for a quail-hunting trip.|
FALFURRIAS, Texas (CNN) -- President Bush says U.S. humanitarian assistance to Iranian quake victims doesn't signify an easing of relations with Tehran, and he demanded the Islamic nation's leaders hand over captured al Qaeda operatives and "abandon their nuclear weapons program."
Bush's Thursday comments about Iran's nuclear program are some of the toughest from the president since Tehran signed an additional nuclear protocol last month to allow U.N. inspectors greater access to Iranian sites.
Although a final death toll may still be several days away, the deputy governor of Bam Thursday said at least 26,500 people were killed in the ancient city when a magnitude-6.6 quake rocked the region December 26, leveling most of the city and leaving tens of thousands homeless. (Full story)
Aid workers from the United States have joined teams from more than 20 countries in forming a massive response to Tehran's calls for aid. In order to expedite disaster relief, Bush Wednesday ordered the temporary easing of some restrictions on sending money and goods to Iran. (Full story)
Some observers have hailed the U.S. involvement as a possible avenue for Tehran and Washington to improve relations, which have been strained since 1979, when the country underwent a revolution and 54 Americans were taken hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on Thursday hailed the temporary lifting of the sanctions as "a positive step" and when former President Hashemi Rafsanjani was asked if it could mean improved Iran-U.S. relations, he told The Associated Press: "I am not sure but the signals point in that direction."
However, Iran President Mohammad Khatami said there could be no change in relations between the two counties until Washington changed its tone and behavior, reported the AP.
And Bush said the easing of restrictions was not a sign of a change in policy, but rather a means to show Iranians that the "American people care and we've got great compassion for human suffering."
"I eased restrictions in order to be able to get humanitarian aid into the country," Bush said.
"It's right to take care of people when they hurt."
He added: "The Iranian government must listen to the voices of those who long for freedom, (they) must turn over al Qaeda that are in their custody, and must abandon their nuclear weapons program."
Bush said he hopes Iran "will get rid of their nuclear weapons program in a verifiable way, that they will listen to the IAEA and the United Nations, and get rid of the programs that they said they are willing to do."
Bush's use of the term "nuclear weapons program" was noteworthy because Tehran has never publicly admitted to such a program, instead insisting its program is for peaceful purposes.
But in mid-December, Iran signed an additional protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, allowing inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency -- more robust access to its nuclear installations.
The IAEA had condemned Iran for its secret nuclear program, warned that future breaches would not be tolerated and pushed for greater access.
In early December, John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for international security, said rogue states like Iran should know that "their covert programs will not escape either detection or consequences."
"No option is off the table," he said.
In November, Iran's top nuclear official said his nation intends to build seven new nuclear plants, and said Tehran will resume its uranium enrichment program at its discretion. But under the agreement reached with the IAEA, Iran must suspend all further uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.