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Neutral Iran Mixes Humanitarian Aid, Diplomatic Pressure : Gulf region: Though it won't take sides, Tehran sends food to Iraq and hosts talks on a 'peaceful solution.'


AMMAN, Jordan — Walking a tightrope of neutrality, Iranian authorities Friday began shipping food and medicine to the Iraqi people while discussing ways to induce their government to leave Kuwait.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati met separately with high-ranking Iraqi and French envoys in Tehran, the official Iranian news agency reported. Top diplomats from Algeria and Yemen were also in the capital, a convergence that has led to speculation that another peace effort is under way.

No details of the talks were disclosed, but Iran's U.N. ambassador, Kamal Kharrazi, said in New York that "ways and means to find a peaceful solution" to the Persian Gulf War would be on the table in discussions between Velayati and the Baghdad official, Deputy Prime Minister Sadoun Hammadi.

On Thursday, the French Foreign Ministry said its envoy, Secretary General Francois Scheer, would not meet with Hammadi and had no mandate to discuss peace initiatives.

On Friday, the nature of Scheer's mission became less certain. Defense Minister Pierre Joxe, pressed by a reporter in Paris, refused to say whether Scheer and Hammadi might meet. However, he said, only Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "holds in his hands the chances for immediate peace."

By helping the Iraqi people, while demanding their government quit Kuwait and railing against Western forces in the Gulf region, Tehran has crafted a delicate neutrality in the war. The country's economy is still reeling from the damage of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and President Hashemi Rafsanjani wants to sit this one out.

But the emotional blow of Western planes bombing a Muslim country, even a traditional enemy, has sent a strong current through Iranian society and politics.

In a prayer sermon at Tehran University on Friday, Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Yazdi, Iran's chief justice, said: "We are not just observers of the scene. To be neutral doesn't mean Iran should remain silent against such attacks on Iraq."

Meanwhile, Iran's Red Crescent Society announced that deliveries of medicine and powdered milk began moving into Iraq. Officials described the shipments as a humanitarian gesture and no violation of the U.N. economic embargo against the Baghdad regime.

Rice, canned fruit, canned fish, sugar, tea and dates will also be sent "to the war-stricken people in Iraq," said Vahid Dastgerdi, head of the Red Crescent. He said the relief effort is being supervised by the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, the Western equivalent of the Muslim Red Crescent Society.

In Geneva, where the Red Cross has its headquarters, Peter Fuchs, head of the organization's task force on the Gulf, said an ICRC convoy of medical supplies had arrived in Baghdad. He said that the convoy had been held up on the Iraqi border for several days before the Iraqi government granted it permission to proceed to Baghdad.

Red Cross and Western diplomatic sources in Geneva said that coalition air forces were notified when the convoy traveled from Iran on Friday.

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