By Paul Iddon
A timely thaw in US Iran relations is just what is needed to alleviate impending disaster.
As we said goodbye to 2011 – a year of social upheaval in the west and revolution throughout the Arab world – and said hello to 2012 – which is bound to be another historically significant year – we were welcomed into the new year with a rather tense week in the Persian Gulf. Following the imposition of fresh sanctions on Tehran over its unrelenting nuclear program the regime responded with threats to close the Strait of Hormuz as well as warning the US carrier John C. Stennis not to return on its scheduled deployment there. The result they desired was fully realized, a rise in oil prices amidst widespread worries of a naval confrontation in the gulf.
During these tensions and break down of diplomacy the US Navy rescued 13 Iranian sailors in the Arabian Sea from Somali pirates. This was seen by Tehran as a humanitarian gesture and there produced a much needed thaw in what was proving to be a tense and confrontation atmosphere in the region. Such thaws are required to avert a confrontation which could ultimate lead to the escalation of a shooting war.
In 2003 following a tense year diplomacy wise between the United States and Iran following the former branding the latter as a member of its proclaimed 'Axis of Evil' we witnessed a similar thaw in tense relations. When disaster struck the Iranian city of Bam in the form of a calamitous earthquake – leaving 26,000 people were killed and 30,000 injured – the Iranian government after some hesitation accepted the United States offer of humanitarian assistance. In return for that timely gesture of humanitarian assistance Iran promised to comply with IAEA agreements.
And on the subject of earthquakes. Tehran with its congested population that numbers in excess of 12 million is in danger of being struck by an earthquake which would be an utter catastrophe as most of the cities inhabitants live in concrete houses and apartment blocks that are not reinforced. No serious measures are being taken in light of what could be an impending disaster that could leave over a million Iranians dead. And in full knowledge of this the regime just this week is opening a new uranium enrichment facility in Qom, where the uranium will be stored in underground bunkers!
We witnessed the terror inflicted on Japan by the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami last year. Which followed a tense few months of fear over the leakage and spread of radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant which would have irradiated the ruins the tsunami left in its path and have been a proverbial salt rubbed on Japan's wound. Luckily for Japan and the wider region a potential disaster was averted. And the long and painful road to recovery has been made less difficult through the general civility and good will that comes from a well developed consensual society.
Lest us not forget it was little more than a year ago that Iran's capital was completely shut down due to pollution. Pollution which came as a result of low quality petroleum (in a country that has a tremendous amount of oil resources) and the governments failure to exercise basic comprehensive policies. This trivial episode shows just how incompetent the regime is with regards to domestic issues. Picture if you will how the same government will act if an earthquake where to hit the capital and most densely populated city in Iran whilst taking into account the emergency measures in place for such a tragedy. I would be of the strong volition that you would have to be a very cold individual not to feel a distinct shiver run down your spine when thinking of the suffering the citizens of Tehran would ultimately bear due to the regimes incompetence, ignorance and indifference.
The thaw I spoke warmly of earlier and the reference to the prior incident in Bam was to make the fundamental point that the International Community should make a unilateral move with regards to this issue. Which should be offering humanitarian assistance to Tehran through a network of donations, with the aim of earthquake proofing large parts of the city and also providing the emergency services there with extensive training in dealing with the widespread panic, destruction and chaos that such an incident would bring. The overall goal of such an international effort would be to safeguard as many lives as possible. Something the regime doesn't seem to be too keen on doing. Such a gesture could also substantially reduce a certain degree of animosity felt among many in Iran towards America and the wider western world. This alone would make it a worthwhile endeavour as it would open up a new channel between Iran and the wider world, change perceptions that both sides have of each other (for the better) and generally broaden their respective vistas.
Look at the alternative, the International Community could sit on its hands or turn a blind and willfully ignorant and indifferent eye. And when such a disaster does transpire we (as far as we constitute an international community) can point the our hypocritical finger of “moral superiority” at the regime, whose hardliners will more than likely blame the victims for bringing the earthquake on themselves, or – like Hugo Chavez did following the devastating Haiti quake – blame the US for orchestrating it or take a line from senior cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi's book and blame the whole disaster on promiscuous women.
We however must remember that we saw the signs of an impending disaster, and when we had the means and know how to drastically reduce the casualties and alleviate untold suffering we nevertheless remained onlookers. And therein will lie our complete and absolute shame.
Editor’s Note: Paul Iddon is one of the authors of Uskowi on Iran. His weekly column 'Broadened Vistas' appears here on Wednesdays.