By Yassamine Mather
The earthquake that shook the city of Bam in south east Iran in the early hours of 26 December has cost the lives of 40-50,000 inhabitants of this city and made more than 200,000 people homeless. As the people of Bam bury their dead, Iranians consider the dangers of an earthquake of similar intensity in the capital, Tehran, which like Bam lies on a major seismological fault and where geophysicists have predicted a strong earthquake would cause a death toll of 700,000.
Iranians have also begun a debate about prevention of death and destruction by such natural disasters, and this has turned to anger and frustration at the incompetence and corruption of the Islamic regime.
This was the first major earthquake of the millennium in Bam, a town which is situated in the south east region of Iran, an active seismic zone. Yet no precautions had been taken in the last decades in the construction of homes, hospitals, offices The failure of two land reforms (one by the Shah's regime and one by the Islamic regime) had forced thousands of impoverished Baluchi peasants to move to the outskirts of Bam, living in mud huts.
Contrary to some press reports, it wasn't the people of Bam who had failed to observe "building regulations" in this earthquake zone. The Iranian government had no such regulations. The destruction of two hospitals and most of the offices and agencies associated with the state in Bam prove this.
It is also false to assume that poorer countries cannot take any steps in the structure of homes and buildings in order to reduce or prevent death caused by earthquakes. Beam structures preventing the collapse of smaller buildings (such as most of the homes in Bam) do not have to be expensive. As the bereaved in Bam have been telling the world in the last week, a state concerned with the well being of its citizens would have taken such steps.
In the first hours after the quake, when foreign reporters arrived in the city, angry survivors told them: "our government is good at shouting death to this, death to that, yet when it comes to the lives of its own people it is useless." Reports from Kerman province suggest that in the crucial hours after the quake the government was desperately slow to respond.
Five of the six main officials of the town had died in the quake. The emergency services were in disarray. Most of the equipment of the state agency responsible for dealing with earthquakes (digging equipment, tents, medical supplies ) was thousands of miles away in the north of the country.
It was late afternoon on Friday by the time the minister in charge arrived in the region. In the crucial hours immediately after the quake, those digging for survivors had nothing but their bare hands. It is estimated that with proper equipment and sniffer dogs some five to ten thousand lives could have been saved in the first 24 hours, yet the people of Bam were denied such help.
Foreign rescue teams were stuck in international airports waiting for the Iranian bureaucracy to allow flights and issue "visas" while people perished in the rubble of their homes in Bam. Some reports suggest that the Iranian government was more concerned to send troops to the region to maintain "security" rather than dispatching aid.
However Iran has been keen to accept foreign aid and, in contrast to 1990 when there was another huge earthquake in Iran, US and other aid workers have been welcomed to such an extent that the Bush administration has decided to seek the "opportunity" presented by the situation to improve relations with Iran, to the dismay of supporters in the US of of Iran's royalist and right wing forces.
The Bush administration has cancelled sanctions for 90 days and intends to dispatch a high level "humanitarian" team including Laura Dole and a member of the Bush family to Iran. As we in the left have said time and time again, the war of words between two religious fundamentalist reactionaries, the Bush administration and Iran's Islamic regime, is nothing but a superficial argument. It is not the earthquake or humanitarian aid that have created this rapprochement. The failures of the US in Iraq, Iran's unequivocal support for the US invasion of Iraq, and its continued support for the Governing Council had already created the conditions for it.
Inside Iran and amongst millions of Iranian exiles, no one is fooled by the Islamic regime. Distrust of its officials and the memory of the corruption that preceded the aid effort in the 1990 earthquake in Guilan have convinced opposition forces to organise their own support for the survivors of Bam earthquake, independent of the Iranian state. Iran's Writers' Association, in conjunction with opposition students and workers inside Iran have set up their own support funds, so that this time financial aid to earthquake victims does not end up enriching corrupt clerics in power in Tehran or the rest of Iran. One such bank account has been set up by leftist writers including writer/translator Mohsen Hakimi.
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