Accessibility links

World: Analysis From Washington--Quakes Physical And Political

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - International assistance to Iran in the wake of the tragic earthquake there over the weekend could have the same effect on Tehran that foreign assistance to the Soviet Union following the 1988 Armenian earthquake had on Moscow.

It could help to open up the Iranian political system. It could lead to an improvement in ties between Iran and the outside world. And it could do both even as everyone involved denies the possibility that any amount of humanitarian assistance could ever have such political effects.

The way in which the international community and the Soviet government responded to the December1988 earthquake in Armenia provides some important clues as to just how that could happen. But the events of nine years ago also indicate just how many other things would have to change in both Iran and the world for such changes to actually take place.

The earthquake in Armenia threw into sharp relief the incapacity of the Soviet government to cope with the consequences of a natural disaster that claimed at least 25,000 lives. Indeed, after initially denying that it needed any help at all, the Soviet government was forced to concede that it would be willing to accept assistance from anyone who would offer it.

Further, as it agreed to allow foreign countries to provide assistance, the Soviet government inevitably lost control over the way in which the aid was distributed. Its initial efforts to control the aid pipeline backfired both practically and politically: they kept the aid from getting to the people who needed it, and they again called attention to the decay of the Soviet system.

Not unimportantly, the willingness of countries around the world to provide assistance reminded the Armenian people that they were not alone in facing disasters either natural or political. It undercut the efforts of those in Moscow who were seeking to prop up their rule by portraying the outside world as implacably hostile.

And perhaps equally significantly, the experience of giving aid to what was then part of the Soviet Union both humanized that country in the eyes of the West and brought the essential fragility of the Soviet political system into sharp focus.

Each of these features of the Armenian experience has a close analogue in the current Iranian situation.

Although the Iranian earthquake appears to have claimed far fewer lives and done significantly less property damage than did the Armenian quake, it too has overwhelmed the capacity of the national government to cope. In sharp contrast to the Soviet regime of Mikhail Gorbachev, however, the Iranian authorities admitted that immediately and asked for assistance.

Moreover, and just as in 1988, the Iranian government has lost any effective control over the distribution of aid, if indeed it ever sought to impose it, a development that means everyone on the ground both in the earthquake zone and throughout Iran can see just who is providing the help and to whom.

For Iranians, this experience with massive outside assistance will make them less willing to accept the demonization of the outside world by their leaders. And for the outside world, it will have the effect of putting a human face on ordinary Iranians and thus making less plausible any effort to demonize Iranians as a whole.

But for these developments to lead to fundamental changes in the Iranian political system and its relations with the outside world, three things are necessary. They were present in the Armenian case almost a decade ago; they are not clearly present in the Iranian one now.

First, there must be a political leader willing to respond to these challenges even at a risk to the political system that produced him. In the Armenian case, Gorbachev proved to be such a leader, despite all his failures both generally and with respect to Armenia in particular.

In Iran today, no such transforming leader has yet appeared. None of the current candidates for president appear likely to be willing to risk such a leap. But the earthquake may put pressure on one or another of them to change direction.

Second, there must be a willingness on the part of the international community to stay involved in the aftermath of a tragedy even if the host government begins to say and do things that donor states do not approve of.

Many aid groups were appalled by some of the statements and actions of Soviet leaders after the Armenian earthquake, but few of them pulled out. And their staying power under such circumstances was probably even more influential politically than their original intervention.

And third, there must be some understanding on the part of the leadership of donor countries that the recipient country will find it difficult to change even if it wants to. It will not want to appear to be backing down to international pressure, and it will not want to appear to have sold out.

In the absence of a new Iranian leader capable of demonstrating that he is willing to change, the international community is unlikely to be willing to show that kind of understanding now.

And as a result, the physical earthquake in Iran may not produce a political one, in sharp contrast to the situation in Armenia.