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Analysis: Iran’s Failed Response To Natural Disasters


Aid is being distributed to earthquake stricken areas in western Iran.

After the Nov. 12 earthquake in western Iran that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded -- and a death toll expected to climb as rescue efforts are still under way -- the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of sympathy.

Instead of donating to government agencies, citizens have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to personal initiatives. Volunteers from across the country and dozens of trucks loaded with donated goods rushed to the disaster-hit area.

Many Iranians quite simply and justifiably do not trust their government to handle the catastrophe and are trying to take the situation into their own hands. This phenomenon has its roots in the undemocratic structure of the country.

In democratic countries, along with the central government, there are regional and local governments that can take charge and respond to natural disasters.

Unfortunately, anyone who would suggest the benefits of a federal structure, with local governments, is promptly accused of treason and supporting separatism in Iran.

In a democracy, the central government becomes involved only when local authorities are not able to handle the crisis on their own. But this is not the case in Iran, where local governments do not exist and the institutions that do exist on a local level are weak.

Therefore, any crisis has to be resolved by the central government, which suffers from widespread corruption, is slow to respond, and prioritizes political interests over helping people and saving lives.

If local emergency institutions prepared for natural disasters existed, the number of casualties and the suffering of victims would be much less than today.

Local institutions can mobilize rescuers and equipment in a short period of time, and this is crucial for earthquakes in particular. But in the absence of such institutions, the local population has no option but to rely on the central government for support.

Unfortunately, anyone who would suggest the benefits of a federal structure, with local governments, is promptly accused of treason and supporting separatism in Iran.

A Lack of NGOs

The Iranian regime has systematically suppressed social and political activists and banned most nongovernmental organizations.

It has tried to replace NGOs with the paramilitary Basij, which is loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In some cases, the regime has even created fake NGOs because it views organic ones as a challenge to its centralized power.

In emergency situations like natural catastrophes, NGOs can play a significant role. A group of local volunteers consisting of 10 or 15 members can help the victims of an earthquake more effectively than a 100-strong military unit stationed miles away. Individual, ad-hoc initiatives were plenty but the absence of local and national NGOs was evident.

While Iran paid thousands of dollars to Lebanese citizens who lost their houses in Israeli attacks, Iranian villagers who lost their houses in earthquakes can never hope to see such generosity from their government.

Many victims of previous earthquakes in Iran are still struggling to recover, having not been able to rebuild their houses and are still living in tents and huts. The government has allocated funds for the reconstruction of their houses, but the money was lost to institutions such as Basij and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

While Iran paid thousands of dollars to Lebanese citizens who lost their houses in Israeli attacks, Iranian villagers who lost their houses in earthquakes can never hope to see such generosity from their government.

President Hassan Rouhani’s recent remarks show that he realizes the severity of the problem. Immediately after the earthquake, he noted that many of the affordable houses built under his predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, were destroyed and added that the government should refrain from such ventures.

“We should assign the job to the people. They can do things better, faster, cheaper, and more precisely,” he said.

The views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda.
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    Majid Mohammadi

    Majid Mohammadi is an Iranian sociologist and political analyst residing in the U.S., who contributes opinion and analysis to Radio Farda.

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