TEHRAN, Iran (AP) --
Iran rebuffed Washington's suggestion that a high-profile U.S. delegation fly in with earthquake relief, saying Sunday the time "is not ripe" for such an exchange -- which could be seen as a sign of smoother ties between the two.
The U.S. administration had proposed dispatching Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, a former president of the American Red Cross, to bring in aid after a magnitude 6.6 quake devastated the ancient city of Bam in southeast Iran on Dec. 26, killing more than 30,000 people.
Although Washington has said the proposal was made for humanitarian reasons with no politics involved, Iran was skeptical, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters.
"The time is not ripe for such a visit," Asefi said.
Relations between Iran and the United States were broken by the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. U.S. staffers were held hostage for 444 days and the two nations have been estranged ever since.
"If a dominant view emerges in the U.S. administration to bring down the wall of mistrust, then a new situation will develop and we can talk. It's not yet clear if there is a will on the part of the Americans or it's an isolated measure," Asefi told a press conference.
The United States moved quickly this past week to provide assistance to Iran's earthquake victims -- and Iran accepted the aid. An American field hospital is now open in Bam, and U.S. officials are helping in an effort to determine how much humanitarian aid is needed in the devastated area.
A visit by Dole would have been widely interpreted as a prelude to a possible political opening between the United States and Iran -- which President Bush designated as a member of an international "axis of evil" in January 2002.
"If the Americans are after political arrangements, some preparations are needed for designing such visits," Asefi said. "And the Americans know the preparatory measures are to bring practical changes to their policy towards Iran."
He said dialogue with Washington was not yet on Iran's agenda.
"The atmosphere in Iran-U.S. relations, where we stand now, is not an atmosphere of dialogue," Asefi said.
The spokesman said dialogue requires the parties to respect each other -- something the "Americans have not shown."
Still, Asefi praised the 90-day lifting of some U.S. sanctions against Iran and said permanent lifting could be one of the practical changes Iran has been waiting for. The United States is allowing for transfers of money to Iran from donors trying to help the quake relief effort.
"Although lifting of sanctions are temporary, it's a positive step. It's natural that if lifting of the sanctions ... becomes permanent, then a different situation will emerge," he said.
The United States cut diplomatic relations with Iran shortly after militant students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Relations thawed somewhat after the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997.