A story Monday indicated that Iraq had not offered earthquake assistance to Iran last month. According to Iranian and other officials, Iraq sent a plane with 24 tons of relief supplies. (Published 7/4/90)

TEHRAN -- Ali Akbar Houssaini, a tailor and volunteer soldier in the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's feared Revolutionary Guard, could not talk about Iran's earthquake without weeping helplessly.

For 10 days and several sleepless nights he stood on a Tehran street corner and gathered donations for quake victims, accepting food, old clothes, tents, an antique Persian rug, cooking stoves, blankets and a child's favorite doll. The contributions came from religious minority groups, Tehran's urban rich who privately sneer at the country's Islamic radicals, and from poor laborers who approached the donation table and asked where they could give the only thing they could afford -- their blood.

"Because of this week, some new connections will be rising between Iranians and with the foreigners, too," Houssaini said Saturday morning. "The Koran says that often when a disaster strikes, it takes time to see the good that comes of it."

For many ordinary Iranians -- even those who, like Houssaini, have lived in the vanguard of Iran's radical Islamic revolution -- the shocking, wrenching and ultimately moving experience of the June 21 earthquake, which the government says killed at least 40,000 people, has served to deflate the perceived threat of Iran's enemies, real and imaginary, within the country and without.

For more than a decade, Iran's radical clerics have sustained their revolution by emphasizing the specter of enemies all around: the shah and his loyalists, anti-Khomeini guerrilla groups, religious and ethnic minorities, Arab "heretics," and the most potent enemy of all, "the great Satan," as the United States is still widely known here.

"The current calamity," wrote the English-language Tehran newspaper Kayhan International this week, "has shown that the same world which confronted Iran in some way or the other after the culmination of the Islamic revolution has now kept aside all its evil designs."

The ultimate lesson of the earthquake for Iran's leaders and people, the paper said, may be "in demonstrating the truth that basically man is not a wicked creature."

Such a lesson, whatever impression it makes on Iranian public opinion, might have been expected to have a negligible impact on the foreign and domestic policies of Iran's radical religious leaders. But the possibility that Iran's enemies may be less wicked than once thought appears to have bolstered the goals of the country's new political leader, President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In the year since Khomeini's death, Rafsanjani has indicated that he would like to ease Iran's international isolation. He has pushed some anti-Western radicals out of important posts, approved a cabinet of relative pragmatists and pursued an economic recovery plan dependent on billions of dollars in credits from the West.

Domestically, Rafsanjani's efforts to reorganize Iran's bureaucracy, build an impartial and independent judiciary and quell the influence of some revolutionary institutions are seen as an attempt to consolidate and normalize Iran's radical Islamic polity.

In this attempt, Rafsanjani has been opposed by hard-liners who say they want Iran's revolution to continue on the radical course Khomeini mapped out. Otherwise, they argue, it will be undermined by enemies at home and abroad.

But after a decade of war with Iraq and with the country's economy increasingly in shambles, many Iranians appear ready to support Rafsanjani's approach.

Dozens of Iranians interviewed during the past week -- from stricken villagers sifting through the rubble of the flattened northwest, to middle-class urbanites, to veterans of the 1980-88 Iraqi war -- echoed Rafsanjani's publicly stated desire for improved science and technology in Iran, greater contacts with the outside world, and stronger and more stable public institutions.

In a sermon delivered at Tehran University on Friday, Rafsanjani lamented that the country had been "busy with the war" and had neglected to build a civil defense force that could respond to disasters like a major earthquake.

Rafsanjani devoted much of his speech to discussing the acquisition of seismic and other technologies and the need to introduce more scientifically based building standards.

Rafsanjani's emphasis on the need for seismic technology provided " a far different rallying cry from "Death to America," a staple of rallies here several years ago and a chant still occasionally heard in Tehran.

Virtually all of Iran's foreign adversaries -- including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Britain -- sent humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Iraq, which occupies about 1,200 square miles of Iranian territory following the war between the two countries, apparently did not offer assistance, but Iranian officials said they would have accepted aid from Iraq if it had been sent.

Diplomats noted that, of the dozen or so countries Iran identifies as enemies, only two -- Israel and South Africa -- were told by Rafsanjani's government that they should not send aid. Neither of those rejected is seen as a potential investor in the five-year economic recovery charted by the Iranian president, who is hoping to attract $27 billion in foreign credits to make it work.

More than half of Rafsanjani's recovery plan involves projected deals through which foreign private or public lenders would come to Iran, identify factories that could be revitalized with an infusion of cash, and recover their loans through profits or products generated by the restarted factories. Such deals would require Western and Japanese bankers to have confidence in the stability of Iran's revolutionary society.

Western investors so far lack such confidence, according to diplomats who have worked with some of the potential lenders. Not even the Japanese, who have friendly relations with Iran and are often first to seize international economic opportunities, have begun to invest on the scale Rafsanjani apparently hopes they will.

Iran has opened talks with the International Monetary Fund about assistance, but so far without result.

The June 21 earthquake and its aftermath, apart from confronting Rafsanjani with an immediate and overwhelming need for relief supplies, offered the Iranian leader an opportunity to build ties to and goodwill with potential lenders, particularly Europeans.

Although a cacophony of voices erupted in debate over accepting such foreign aid, Rafsanjani and Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, held firm, refusing to publicly criticize any donor and attacking Islamic hard-liners who did so.

{Iranian Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri Sunday rejected the suggestion that any gestures of goodwill might improve Iran's relations with the West, the Associated Press reported from Tehran. "Bilateral issues between nations and governments . . . are not settled with such things," he said.}

But the reevaluation of Iran's list of enemies during the earthquake crisis not only was an apparent calculation made by the country's political leadership, but also the result of a rare and spontaneous contact between ordinary Iranians and hundreds of Western rescue workers, doctors and journalists who flocked to the quake area one week ago.

Americans, even some who had been in Iran numerous times since the revolution, were struck and sometimes stunned by the warm, grateful and occasionally tearful receptions they received from Iranian survivors and soldiers combing the ruins of Manjil and Rudbar, the worst-hit towns.

The Americans were struck also by the large sign embroidered on the wall of their government-appointed hotel in central Tehran: "Down with U.S.A."

British, French and other European rescue workers labored side by side through sleepless nights with members of Iran's ideologically impassioned Revolutionary Guards, searching often futilely for survivors. There were tensions, but rescue workers on both sides said they hoped the experience augured the beginning of a thaw between Iran and the West.

"Sympathy brings sympathy," said Wahid Dastjerdi, president of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross.

But Iran's radical Shiite Moslem society -- its revolution of clenched fists, tears, raised voices and beating of chests -- may have been only temporarily transformed by the worst natural disaster in the nation's modern history. Iranians themselves disagreed about whether the feeling of community and purpose generated after the earthquake -- both within Iranian society and between Iran and its foreign adversaries -- would be sustained for very long.

"I'm not sure about what governments want," said a Revolutionary Guard posted at an earthquake relief post next to a Tehran army base. "But in the hearts of the people, yes, there has been a change."