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Earthquakes in Iran

We’ve commented very little here about the Iran earthquake of December 26th, which could obviously be an earthquake in more ways than one. For several days now, I’ve been wanting to do a piece called something like “Now wait for the political tremors”. But hello, what’s this?

Here’s how this Economist piece concludes:

… the catastrophe may have one benign effect: a lessening of the Islamic republic’s distrust of foreigners. That distrust was evident in 1990, when the Iranians turned down many offers of outside help in the aftermath of a previous catastrophic quake and officials denounced sniffer dogs as “unclean”. Mr Khatami, in recent days, has showed no such qualms, appealing for help from all bar Israel. Some people in Bam were rescued thanks to the once-reviled canines.

Mr Khatami’s conservative rivals have mixed feelings about foreign help. During his trip to the area, the supreme leader did not deign to mention the mainly western countries that had rushed to Iran’s aid, let alone thank the rescuers in person. That is not untypical of Iran’s stand-offish conservatives. Last Friday, while survivors of the disaster surveyed the wreckage of their lives, Mr Khamenei found time to extol at length the merits of making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Yes, but setting aside how the conservative bit of the Iranian elite feels what is the Iranian elite as a whole doing that is any different?

This UPI piece is somewhat more informative on that score:

On the issue of a diplomatic thaw, Rashid Khalikov, a U.N. official, praised Iran’s quick call for help and opening of its borders. “They immediately opened up their airports for foreign flights, opened their consulates all over the world to issue visas for aid workers as fast as they could and have often waived them,” Khalikov said at a Monday news conference in Geneva.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in interview with the Washington Post, “There are things happening, and therefore we should keep open the possibility of a dialogue at an appropriate point in the future.”

The story seems to be that there are two kinds of attitude that are contending for supremacy in Iran, the one that says that Allah will see to everything provided only that we grovel to him in the precisely correct manner while wailing the precisely correct noises, and the one that says that if Allah wants this mess (and all the other messes around here) sorted, the way he’ll do it is by us sorting it on his behalf, by making use of such things as dogs, foreigners, etc. The former tendency wants the West to drop dead. The latter tendency wants Iran to come alive.

And this earthquake, paradoxically, plays right into the hands of the Come Alive party, because it shines a big public torch on which attitude saves lives and which one does not. For never forget that the key to how many people die in disasters is not just how many die in that first horrible few minutes, but how many more die of boring things like malnutrition, the cold, infection caused by lack of sanitation, infection of untended wounds, etc., during the days that follow. And that latter figure is determined by the attitude of those in power who are able to do something, and who either do that something or do not.

Personally I don’t think it makes much sense to moan about whether buildings were or were not earthquake proofed. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but is no help in clearing up a mess right now. That stuff comes later.

But a ruling elite that sits on its prayer mats in the immediate aftermath of disaster but otherwise does nothing is definitely moan-worthy. Mr Khamenei and his ilk will surely not be looking good in the eyes of their fellow countrymen right now.

12 comments to Earthquakes in Iran

  • JSAllison

    An eqyptian that I worked with for some time in Kuwait told me one time about a bedouin that came into a trading camp and refused to tie up his camel, claiming that allah would look out for him and keep the camel safe. In the fullness of time the bedouin returned to where he had parked the camel, only to find that it had disappeared. He fell to his knees in despair and cried out: “Allah! Always I have been faithful, always I have been mindful of the five pillars, why have you done this to me? Why have you not kept my camel safe?” And allah replied: “Abdullah, if you want me to watch over your camel, tie it to a post, first.” There’s a message in there somewhere…

  • LB

    A lot of factors contributed to the overthrow of the Samoza crime family in Nicuargua in 1979. Nicuarguans always cite the earthquake in 1972, when the Samozas stole half the disaster aid that came in. It pushed the previously nuetral business community and Church into the opposition category. The Samozas also stole disaster relief for a later hurricane. When the Sandinistas finally went for the throat and Carter abandoned them, they went over like bowling pins.

    I wonder if we will be seeing something similar in Iran.

  • toolkien

    And that latter figure is determined by the attitude of those in power who are able to do something, and who either do that something or do not.

    I think it should be better stated in this case that those in power not prevent others from helping. Those in power still don’t have the right to take other’s property just because a misfortune befell someone else, regardless of the scale involved. In some cases, if an epidemic were seen to be a possibility that some action might be taken, but otherwise it should be left to private associations to render assistance.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    I just knew that a doctrinaire libertarian would talk doctrinaire nonsense about disaster relief in connection with this posting, to the point where I almost included a pre-emptive reply to your comment.

    The very definition of a catastrophe like this one is that those with power have to do a lot of things right, fast, or lots of people die. The existing power structure, whatever it is, has to act, and act fast. If the existing power structure consists of the kind of voluntary institutions you mention, then fine, they go to work. But if these institutions are not powerful enough to deal with the problem, then whoever is powerful enough must do the business, and if some people’s rights get trampled on, tough.

    Talking about “voluntary institutions”, if none powerful enough – or mentally prepared enough – to deal with the crisis are already in place is similar to talking about earthquake proofing, etc. When disaster strikes, you have, as the golfers say, to play the ball where it lies.

    Your attitude, I believe, is what turned the Irish Potato Famine from a disaster into the epoch making catastrophe it became and from which Anglo-Irish relations have yet to recover. There, an earlier generation of doctrinaire laissez faire liberals sat around splitting hairs about property rights, when they should have robbed the British taxpayer and dealt with the problem by chucking food at it, very quickly.

    THEN, after the crisis had been averted, the question of what institutions should really have been in place to solve the problems can be discussed, at leisure.

    Sorry for the verbosity of this reply. I’m in a rush because about to go New Year’s Eve socialising. Had I had more time, I’d have managed something more concise.

    Happy New Year to all.

  • I hope some Iranians compare and contrast Bam with the recent San Simeon earthquake in Califonia (2 dead) and even more with the Kobe e/q which conclusivley proved that heavy roofs on weak walls are a death-trap. It’s criminal for the Iranian authorities to not enforce some basic building standards and perhaps the best way to get change would be to start insisting on building codes for hospitals and the like in the rest of Iran so that when the next quake happens at least some buildings survive.

    Doing so may well step on the toes of the “InshAllah” crowd and do so in a way that even their own supporters find hard to criticise.

  • Charles Copeland


    Most of what you say makes sense but you’ve missed the point about the Irish Potato Famine. If the British had chucked food at us, the population would have doubled from 8 million to 16 million, then they would have had to chuck more food, then the population would have risen to 32 million etc etc. We would have gone on reproducing like, well, like the Irish. We would have ended up like the Gaza strip during the monsoon season.

    Sorry, but the Irish Famine was — brutal though it is to put it that way — a form of further education for the Irish people. It taught the Irish to postpone marriage, do sensible things like becoming nuns and priests, and stick to harmless sexual activities such as masturbation and bestiality.

    As Garret Hardin might have put it, Ireland’s problem was not ‘food shortage’ — it was ‘population longage’.

    And Happy New Year from the Potato Republic!

  • ed

    Sorry but the “Great Hunger” came about largely due to the disenfranchisement of the Irish poor, consolidation of arable land under British landowners engaged in tennancy and a brutual policy of exporting food regardless of domestic food shortages. It really had little to do with excess population even though the Irish population had grown somewhat due to a period of relative calm.

    Instead the Irish became dependent upon a single source of food with no alternatives. The potato was chosen simply due to it’s ease of growing, starch value and the ability to grow in small plots. It’s when these small plots failed and people had to purchase expensive grains that the economic dislocation started. After people went broke from this cascading situation they were then forced off whatever property they resided upon and made to find other shelter. There being no other shelter it was fairly common to find dead bodies at various points on the road.

    The British at the time didn’t intervene due to gross mismangement, bad politics and an overwhelming lack of humanity. Additionally it was British policy to artificially inflate the price of grains so that the dominant class, the wealthy titled landowners, could maximize their profits. With the minimum price of grain set by the government a policy of exportation is nearly automatic as the domestic population loses their ability to purchase the expensive commodity. This of course doesn’t even cover the price gouging and profiteering that was rampant at the time and under those conditions.

    A different policy that allowed grain prices to be set by the marketplace would possibly, though not automatically, have averted the famine and prevented the massive death toll. Even a policy that had incorporated a speck of humanity that would have allowed the Irish to purchase grain at a reduced price could have helped greatly.

    Frankly such a policy coupled with a scientific search for blight resistent strains of the potato could have had enormous ramifications. Not only many people would have still been alive, a massive tragedy averted and tremendous damage to the Irish soul prevented, it would have greatly improved relations between the Irish and the British. Something that could have possibly paved the way for a reconciliation long ago.

    As a Conservative I have many opinions on financial responsibility but I am not such a fanatic that I’m willing to watch people starve to death. Pity that the aristocracy of then Britain couldn’t have shared that same viewpoint.

  • Charles Copeland


    Turn on the waterworks and pass me the Kleenex. How easy it is to play the humanitarian counterfactualist 150 years after the event!

    Nobody wants people to starve. But if people reproduce geometrically, that’s what inevitably happens, sooner or later. It’s called “boom and bust” in population studies, I believe. That was my point. Can’t you grasp it?

    Ever heard of Malthus, Ed? This problem isn’t rocket science. It’s O-level material. But it does require you to turn off the sob sister sentimental mode and start using your intelligence.

  • “Personally I don’t think it makes much sense to moan about whether buildings were or were not earthquake proofed. ”

    Personally, I think it makes perfect sense to question why Iran refuses to adopt universal building standards for its public buildings.

  • R C Dean

    Ever heard of Malthus, Ed?

    Yeah, the guy who made a bunch of predictions about world famine that never came true.

    Surely the old population grows geometrically while food grows linearly trope has been thoroughly disproven by now, hasn’t it?

  • Reid

    “Personally I don’t think it makes much sense to moan about whether buildings were or were not earthquake proofed. Hindsight is a wonderful thing”

    According to Amir Taheri, it isn’t a question of hindsight, but rather a conscious decision by the Revolutionary government to ignore the building codes and restrictions adopted during the time of the Shah in order to line their own pockets.

  • ed

    “Nobody wants people to starve. But if people reproduce geometrically, that’s what inevitably happens, sooner or later. It’s called “boom and bust” in population studies, I believe. That was my point. Can’t you grasp it?”

    The problem is that the Potato Famine wasn’t due to overpopulation. It was due, in large part, to overdependence upon a single food source coupled with serious social and political problems. Another issue could be argued was/is the tendency to divide land plots among surviving children. Over time this resulted in numerous small plots that couldn’t really be used for anything other than potato farming.

    Frankly the current condition of Europe’s population implosion entirely refutes Malthus. Along with the fact that Malthus depended upon people acting as if they had the mentality of hamsters rather than as sentient human beings who can actually exercise choice.