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Earthquake That Destroyed Bam Also Rattled U.S.-Iranian Relations - 2004-01-08


The earthquake that hit Bam on December 26 killed over 30,000 people and left the ancient Iranian city in ruins. Rescuers and aid flowed in from around the world, including the United States. Many people now question whether the quake will shake up relations between the two long-time sworn enemies. VOA’s Serena Parker has more in today’s report.

Lieutenant Mark Stone is a member of Fairfax County, Virginia’s Urban Search and Rescue Team. His was one of the first of such teams to arrive on the scene on September 11, 2001 when terrorists hijacked and crashed a passenger jet into the Pentagon. Recently, 11 members from his team traveled to Iran along with 73 other Americans to help with disaster and relief efforts underway in the southern city of Bam, where a devastating earthquake killed between 30,000 and 32,000 people.

“We’ve been in contact with our contingent of people on a daily basis over there talking to the task force leader,” Lt. Stone says. “From day one when they entered Bam, they have reported back to us that the community and the citizens of Bam have just received them with open arms.”

Media outlets from around the world have covered the Iranians’ response to these rescuers. After all, the earthquake struck a country that President Bush has branded as part of an “axis of evil,” and Iran’s leaders have called the United States the “Great Satan.” Iran, in fact, turned down an offer from the U.S. government to send a high-level delegation to assist in the distribution of relief supplies.

Lt. Stone says the men and women from his unit are aware of the historic significance, but they are focusing on their work. “Our job is to go into dangerous situations. The adrenaline was flowing. We were ready to go. It didn’t really matter where they sent us,” he says.

Lt. Stone admits there were some concerns. After all, many in the United States vividly remember the images of the 52 American hostages held by Islamic radicals at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for more than 14 months.

Iran’s decision to accept U.S. humanitarian aid comes on the heels of the country’s announcement that it will allow surprise inspections of the its nuclear energy program. Both moves have been described as “encouraging” by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. In an interview with The Washington Post newspaper, he said: “There are things happening, and therefore we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future.”

But many Americans remain skeptical about Iran’s motives. Michael Ledeen, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based research organization, says sending humanitarian aid to Iran was the right thing to do. But he is strongly opposed to the idea of opening talks with the Iranian regime.

“I think some Americans have convinced themselves that there’s a way to work out our differences in a nice and friendly manner,” he says, “and there’s an understandable reluctance to accept the unpleasant fact that this regime in Iran is our enemy. And they have proclaimed themselves to be our enemy and they have always acted like our enemy. Iran is the number one country on the list of nations that support terrorism around the world and have been as long as I can remember.”

Mr. Ledeen doesn’t think the United States can ever be on good terms with the current regime in Iran. Instead, he says the U.S. government should offer support to the democracy and human rights movement inside Iran.

“Our leaders should be openly speaking about the repressive conditions in Iran,” he says, “and the wreckage of Iran that has taken place underneath this regime. And in general, do the same thing that was done for Solidarity in Poland and for the anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines and the anti-Milosevic movements in Yugoslavia.”

While supporting democracy and human rights movements in Iran is important, many analysts think change in the Iranian regime is unlikely in the near future. George Perkovich, vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says important issues need to be addressed now. The United States cannot afford to shun the Iranian regime.

“The Iranian nuclear program is a problem that has to be solved right away,” he says. “We don’t know how long it would take for regime change. People in Iran say it’s going to take a long time. We don’t have that long to deal with the nuclear problem. So we have to solve that problem with the people who have power today. Regime change requires the luxury of time that we may not have.”

The United States has accused Iran of trying to develop a nuclear weapons program, which Iran has long denied. Only after much pressure from Americans and Europeans did Iran admit to taking such steps. In late December, Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment operations and allow inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog into the country. George Perkovich says once Iran realized the West wasn’t going to let up the pressure, it buckled.

“Right now Iran clearly doesn’t want to be isolated,” he says. “They don’t want to be an international pariah. That would have happened if they had not agreed to let the inspectors in and, most importantly, to freeze the enrichment of uranium or plutonium processing. They agreed to that because if they did not agree to that, they would have been sent to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions.”

Mr. Perkovich cautions that allowing inspections doesn’t mean Iran is giving up its nuclear aspirations. Nor should Iran’s acceptance of U.S. humanitarian aid be seen as anything more than that.

Afshin Molavi is an Iranian-born journalist and author whose latest book is Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys across Iran. Mr. Molavi says Iranians are fed up with the political, economic and social situation in the country. The earthquake and the government’s response to the disaster have only deepened the discontent.

“If any country in the world should be prepared for an earthquake of this magnitude, it’s Iran,” he says, “because it sits on three major earthquake fault lines. So Iranians say: ‘What were you doing before this? Why weren’t building codes enforced? Why did both hospitals in Bam have to crumble?’ It’s one thing for a 2,000-year old citadel to crumble it’s another for key institutions like firehouses and hospitals and police stations to crumble.”

Mr. Molavi says Iran’s hard-line conservatives are aware of people’s unhappiness. They also know the vast majority of Iranians want normal relations with the United States. He says if hard-liners regain control of parliament in February 2004 and then the presidency in 2005, they might feel strong enough to resume talks with the United States.

While Mr. Molavi encourages the Bush Administration to speak out in favor of the Iranian people and their hopes for democracy, he believes Washington can engage the Iranian regime at the same time.

“I think the ideal model would be the Cold War model,” he says, “in which the United States engaged creatively with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but on the other hand the United States also continuously expressed its support for freedom movements in those countries. Iran is not a country you can ignore. It is a country that is a major geo-political player. It’s three times the size of France. It has the world’s second largest gas reserves, the world’s third largest oil reserves. So this is a country that American diplomats should not ignore. Nor is it a country that American diplomats should appease.”

Most of the international rescue teams sent to Bam have packed up and gone home and the International Red Cross/Red Crescent has moved in to help the quake survivors. Does this mean a return to the status quo? There are many who say the diplomatic channels that Iran and the United States have opened to deal with the devastating earthquake are likely to remain at least partially open.

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