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Posted: 12/30/2003 5:55:55 AM EDT
December 30, 2003


IT may take months before we know the exact number of people who died during the recent earthquake in Bam, south-eastern Iran.
The authorities have cited the figure of 30,000 dead and more than 50,000 injured. Local sources, however, speak of double those numbers.

It would take weeks before all the affected small towns and villages, numbering in hundreds, are reached. The hasty burial of corpses in mass graves renders any exact estimates that much more difficult. Also, thousands of people who have lost their homes are already leaving the region in search of temporary or permanent refuge elsewhere in the province.

One thing is certain: The earthquake has dealt a serious blow to the dwindling fortunes of the so-called pro-reform coalition led by President Muhammad Khatami. The anger it has provoked throughout the country is unlikely to ebb soon.

It may, in fact, overshadow the general election that is now less than two months away. What is already known as "the Bam effect" could produce either a mass boycott of the polls or an unexpected victory for the more hard-line Khomeinists who insist that Khatami's talk of reform has led the country into an impasse.

Khatami was able to take the measure of things himself when he was booed and boycotted during his whirlwind visit to the stricken regions four days after the quake. In fact, he had to cancel the best part of his program because the local authorities could not ensure his security. At least two of Khatami's ministers, visiting the affected areas, narrowly escaped being beaten up by angry survivors.

To be sure, blaming Khatami for a natural disaster is unfair. But he represents a regime that, to many Iranians, is at least partially responsible for the tragedy.

The ancient city of Bam, the epicenter of the quake, has a long history of destruction. It was first destroyed in an earthquake almost 1,900 years ago. But such is the unexplainable magnetism of Bam that, almost eight centuries later, it had become an important trading center with a cosmopolitan population of Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.

The city was again almost totally razed by an earthquake in 1911. But by the 1930s it had reemerged as a trading center and a producer of dates and pistachios. Then came other earthquakes in 1950 and 1966.

By the early 1970s, the government had decided not to allow people to build new houses in Bam itself. The city's ancient monuments were declared part of the heritage of mankind under UNESCO and no new buildings permits were issued for almost six years.

The revolutionary turmoil of 1978-79 provided racketeers with an opportunity to seize large chunks of land in Bam and use it for poorly designed and badly constructed houses and shops. The racket was backed by a group of powerful mullahs who, in exchange for a cut in the proceeds, issued fatwas (religious opinions) that canceled government orders that banned house-building in the city.

The mullahs claimed that the shah had wished to keep Bam empty because of a secret plan under which the city would be turned into a Zoroastrian center. They also dismissed warnings from the National Seismological Center in Tehran that opposed the repopulation of Bam. The mullahs claimed that the Hidden Imam would protect the new inhabitants of the city against all disasters.

Thus, more than half of those who died in the earthquake could be regarded as victims of a racket ran by mullahs and their associates with the help of religious prejudice and superstition.

Most Iranians knew nothing of the racket that the earthquake has exposed. The discovery that so many people died because cynical developers and bribe-taking mullahs sought a fast buck has sent a shock wave throughout the country.

The earthquake has also revealed the abject poverty of parts of Iran. Bam and most of its satellite towns and village lacked the minimum infrastructure of urban and rural life in the 21st century. There were only 250 hospital beds and 31 doctors for a population of over 150,000. The region's one small airport could not take in even medium-sized aircraft bringing in relief. And when relief arrived, there were no vehicles and certainly no roads to carry them to those most in need.

That level of poverty, often associated with sub-Saharan African states, comes as a shock when it is observed in an oil-rich country like Iran. A nation that has earned almost $500 billion in oil revenues alone in the past 25 years finds it hard to believe that some of its regions were as undeveloped as Burkina Faso.

The earthquake also focuses attention on the nuclear power plant that Iran is building on the Bushehr Peninsula. The plant is on the same geological fault line that destroyed Bam. Each year, thousands of tremors of various degrees of intensity are recorded on that fault line.

Bushehr itself has thrice been destroyed by earthquake in recent times (1877, 1911 and 1962). It is not hard to imagine what an earthquake that destroys a nuclear power plant could do to the entire Persian Gulf area.

The Germans who designed the Bushehr plant and the Russians who are building it assure everyone that it could withstand tremors of up to 7.2 on the Richter scale. That is almost one degree higher than the tremor that destroyed Bam. Also, the available historical data show that the region has not known tremors of more than 7 on the Richter scale. But there is no guarantee that a higher-intensity tremor will not strike in the future.

The Persian Gulf, through which passes almost half of the world's imported crude oil, is a shallow body of water that consists entirely of the continental shelf. (On average it does not go deeper than 90 meters). The destruction of a nuclear plant by earthquake in so shallow and narrow a waterway could create a disaster many times larger than that of Chernobyl. It would affect eight coastal countries directly, while dealing a severe blow to world trade by halting oil exports for months if not years.

The Bushehr plant may have made some sinister sense under Iran's program to develop nuclear weapons. Last month, however, Tehran announced that it had suspended that program and would open the country to meaningful inspection of all its nuclear sites in the future.

If the Tehran leadership is sincere, it must also review the necessity of building the plant at Bushehr. All the economic and political arguments are against the completion of the plant. The Bam earthquake has added a scientific argument: Iran should do nothing that could produce the world's biggest nuclear disaster if and when earthquake strikes Bushehr again.
Link Posted: 12/30/2003 12:26:37 PM EDT
My impression is that there is a great divide between the Iranian people in general and their government. (Much like us during certain administrations!)

I would love to see a popular (moderate) government be installed and relations between our countries healed.

Oh well...
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