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Analysis: Quake Highlights Iran's Difficulties In Handling Civil-Affairs Emergencies

The southeast village of Dahouyeh was completely destroyed by the 22 February earthquake Officials announced on 23 February that the death toll from a 6.4 magnitude earthquake one day earlier in southeastern Iran's Kerman Province had exceeded 790, and the same day Reuters reported that angry locals attacked the visiting Interior Minister's convoy as they complained about an inadequate governmental response.

"Aftab-i Yazd" reacted to the government's inadequate response to the earthquake by noting on 23 February, "Nobody can prevent earthquakes, but human beings can respond to the casualties and damage done by earthquakes." The daily asked why, more than one year after an earthquake in the southeastern city of Bam killed tens of thousands of people, new standards for earthquake resistant buildings are not in use. The daily suggested that in the coming days there will be reports about the weak buildings, and this will demonstrate that there is "no systematic program to make buildings resistant as the only way to prevent casualties." The daily also condemned "the repeated lack of coordination in aid and rescue services."

The current tension sheds more light on several deep-rooted problems that are hindering Iran's ability to cope with natural disasters or crises, including a lack of governmental preparedness, poor management, and the state's indifference.

While the disastrous earthquake in Bam in December 2003 is the most apparent disaster to have befallen Iran in recent years, more innocuous acts of nature may serve as better examples of the government's failure to meet public needs.

Earlier this month, heavy snowfall wrought havoc in many parts of Iran. People in northwestern Iran were not only faced with unseasonably low temperatures, but also had to deal with a lack of resources for heating their homes and cooking their food.

Kurdistan provincial journalist Masud Kurdpur described the challenges in an interview with Radio Farda. Temperatures were minus 25 degrees Celsius, he said, and natural gas and electricity were not available in the towns of Mahabad, Piranshahr, and Sardasht. Locals in Mahabad demonstrated in front of the governorate, and in Saqez, where gas was unavailable for days, people protested at the gas utility company. There was also a bread shortage, Kurdpur said at the time, because most bakeries use gas ovens.

Protesters wanted to know why there was a natural-gas shortage in a country with the world's second-largest gas reserves, Kurdpur said, adding that people in Miyandoab were particularly upset because gas pipelines supplying Turkey pass through the district.

Officials said the cold weather was responsible for low gas pressure and advised locals to reduce their natural-gas usage, Kurdpur continued. The electricity shortage was due to an explosion at a transfer station between Mahabad and Urumiyeh, which occurred because of overloaded capacity due to the usage of electric heaters.

Unseasonably heavy snowfall in Gilan Province, which bordered the Caspian Sea, wrought an unprecedented disaster there. Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said that 30,000 provincial buildings -- including homes, schools, and offices -- had been damaged, "Iran" newspaper reported on 16 February. He promised the people of Gilan that the government would provide them with "serious support." He explained that the government was not adequately prepared because such a heavy snowfall is unprecedented, and he called for better readiness in the future. Musavi-Lari and other officials toured the cities of Rasht, Lahijan, Sangar, Dilman, and Kuchsefahan by helicopter.

Islamic Revolution Guards Corps spokesman Masud Jazayeri said on 16 February that his organization was providing emergency services in Gilan Province, "Kayhan" reported. This included medical teams and using helicopters to rescue the snowbound, he said.

The government's lack of preparedness caused a great deal of irritation. Speaking on behalf of the parliamentarians from Gilan Province, Iraj Nadimi said in the 13 February legislative session, "Having so many problems with power and water distribution networks of the villages around Rasht was surprising," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported the next day. He added that municipal and provincial officials did not help people who lost access to natural gas. Nadimi said the government should learn from this and improve its crisis management.

Newspapers also commented on the situation. The reformist "Aftab-i Yazd" daily commented on 14 February that Tehran was overwhelmed by heavy rains 21 years ago, and it suggested that the situation is the same today while other regional states have progressed. The English-language "Iran Daily" noted on 14 February that the heavy snowfall caused traffic delays and school closures in Tehran. The snow is not the problem, the newspaper commented, it is the lack of planning and "serious failures in the stewardship of public money and the wholesale mismanagement of the lives of millions of people who for long have been waiting for meritocracy and responsibility from powers that be." The ultra-conservative "Jomhuri-yi Islami" said the situation proved officials' lack of readiness and executive branch's weakness.

Public anger with the government's seemingly inadequate response to such events is not unprecedented. After the December 2003 earthquake in Bam, the international community rushed to provide humanitarian assistance. But more than a year later some people are still living in tents. Locals have demonstrated, provincial officials have resigned, and national officials have promised relief. Yet the situation has not changed for the better.

The central government's inadequate response can be attributed to a number of factors. The most obvious is a lack of preparedness and the absence of a serious emergency management agency. It appears that every time a natural disaster occurs, ad hoc institutions are created to manage the situation and this results in an absence of coordination. Often, furthermore, officials get their jobs through nepotism or connections rather than through their qualifications. They are not trained for such situations.

The final reason could be government indifference. There are frequent albeit sporadic demonstrations against shortages, inadequate social services, job layoffs, and the other irritants of life in Iran, but they have never posed a serious threat to the regime. The government knows it can easily co-opt a public that is heavily dependent upon it, and if that fails, its control of coercive institutions carries the day.

The Islamic Republic claims to care a great deal about its citizens' physical and spiritual well-being; indeed, these are its founding principles. But in the final analysis, the regime is more focused on its own preservation.