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Iran: U.S. Sends Aid To Earthquake Victims

  • Charles Recknagel

The United States has sent some $300,000 in aid to Iran's earthquake victims through the United Nations children's agency, UNICEF. The aid comes as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has said Tehran will accept aid for the victims from Washington -- with which Iran has no diplomatic relations -- because, "aid is aid...and foreign aid is natural in this kind of situation."

Prague, 3 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A plane arriving in Tehran yesterday brought some $300,000 in American aid to the survivors of the earthquake that ravaged parts of northern Iran less than two weeks ago.

The plane delivered water-purification kits, 20,000 hygiene kits, and 5,000 blankets. The 22 June earthquake killed an estimated 235 people and left at least another 12,000 homeless in three provinces. The epicenter of the earthquake was in mountainous Qazvin Province, some 200 kilometers west of Tehran.

UNICEF's spokesperson in Tehran, Luc Chauvin, told our correspondent by phone today that the U.S. aid was delivered by international staff, which did not include Americans. "It was a U.S. chartered plane, and the plane was chartered by USAID, this U.S. government agency [for international development], and it arrived around 1:30 in the afternoon [yesterday], and the supplies will be handed over to the Ministry of Interior Disaster Task Force, which is the coordinating body for the relief efforts here in Iran," Chauvin said.

The aid follows an offer of assistance to Iran from U.S. President George W. Bush immediately after the quake, which registered 6.3 on the Richter scale. In making the offer, Bush said in a statement that "human suffering knows no political boundaries." The statement added that the U.S. stands "ready to assist the people of Iran as needed and as desired."

Washington, which has no diplomatic ties with Iran, made the aid offer through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which represents American interests. Initially, it was unclear if Iran would accept the offer of humanitarian assistance from the United States due to the cold relations between the two countries.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, in announcing the U.S. offer on 24 June, said that Tehran's first response was only a polite thank you for the gesture, but no indication that the aid would be accepted. "They've said, 'Thanks for the offer.' We know they've said this to others as well: 'Thanks for the offer, not right now, we'll get back to you if we need it,'" Boucher said.

But Tehran changed that position after President Mohammad Khatami toured one of the worst-hit areas in the region, the small village of Abdareh. There, the earthquake toppled the mosque and flattened 40 homes and, according to early reports, killed 20 people. Many of the homes, made of dried mud and wood, were reduced to dust by the force of the tremors.

Khatami, dressed in a black robe of mourning as he visited the area three days after the quake, was asked on the spot by reporters if he would accept Bush's offer of assistance. He answered that, "Yes, aid is aid." He also said that "foreign aid is natural in this kind of situation, and Iran also accepts that."

However, as the aid arrived yesterday, it was clear that both the U.S. and Iran had resolved to downplay the American origin of the packages and ensure that delivery of the assistance was not complicated by politics.

News agencies reported that the packages were unmarked and the channeling of the aid through the United Nations makes it appear part of the larger worldwide relief effort. That effort has also seen condolences or offers of help from Armenia, Australia, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey, among other countries.

The U.S. aid comes as tensions between Tehran and Washington are high over the U.S.'s labeling Iran part of an "axis of evil" earlier this year. Washington has said that Iran poses a security threat to American and Western interests due to efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles. Tehran denies it is seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Washington also accuses Iran of providing support to militant Islamist groups, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, which Washington calls terrorist organizations. Tehran says the militant Islamist groups are waging a struggle of liberation against Israel, which Iran does not recognize.

Tehran and Washington have had no diplomatic relations since a crisis over U.S. diplomats held hostage in Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Despite these tensions, each country has at times expressed sympathy for misfortunes suffered by the people of the other. Khatami condemned the 11 September attacks on America and extended his sympathy to the victims. But the periodic gestures of understanding have yet to lead to any thaw in official relations or a rapprochement.

UNICEF's Chavin said that the international help Iran is receiving for the earthquake victims is principally to supplement Tehran's own aid resources, which he said are largely sufficient for dealing with the crisis. "In terms of what UNICEF and the other international agencies are doing, it is really to supplement the efforts of the government since, unfortunately, [the Iranians] are quite used to dealing with such occurrences, and Iran is quite a disaster-prone country, from earthquakes to drought to flooding. So, they have built up quite a strong response capacity [within the] government and the Iranian Red Crescent Society," Chavin said.

The UNICEF spokesman said there is still an urgent need in the earthquake-struck areas for additional potable drinking water and sanitation systems, but that the peak of the emergency is now over. He said relief workers' attention is now turning to the recovery phase, including the rehabilitation of villages and repairs to public buildings.

Iran, which lies on a major seismic line, is prone to earthquakes, and mild tremors are reported in various parts of the country almost daily. In May 1997, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale killed 1,500 people. In June 1990, an earthquake with a magnitude of more than 7.3 killed some 40,000 people and left half a million homeless.