On the British and US response to the Bam earthquake

By Jean Shaoul
22 January 2004

The earthquake that struck southeastern Iran on December 26 was one of the most catastrophic in the last 25 years. It killed more than 40,000 people and injured at least 30,000. It destroyed more than 80 percent of the buildings in Bam and the surrounding towns and villages, leaving more 100,000 people homeless.

It is instructive to examine the response of Britain and the US to the quake as mediated through the lens of the liberal press: a witches’ brew of cynicism, complacency and self-interest. They were not going to miss an opportunity to make political and economic gain from such a disaster.

As far as the imperialist bourgeoisie and its hangers-on are concerned, every incident—however tragic— is viewed from the narrow prism of their strategic interests as the Guardian’s comment pieces demonstrate.

Its leader on December 29 entitled “Ripples of Bam” reported that thousands of families were now without food, medicines, jobs or homes. “If past experience is any guide, they will remain this way for months—if not years—to come,” it continued.

It compared the experience in Bam with the earthquake of a similar force a few days earlier in southern California that had destroyed only a few buildings and killed two people. It made the entirely legitimate criticism that Iran’s unelected theocracy had played a crucial role in exacerbating the impact of the earthquake by nodding through shoddy construction that breached the building regulations.

Bam was indeed a disaster waiting to happen. The government’s failure to make adequate preparations for what is a frequent occurrence in Iran served to compound the tragedy. The Guardian went on to note that the earthquake had provoked fierce criticism of the government from all sections of Iranian society and would “produce an extensive societal aftershock.”

So far, so good—but then the Guardian sets out its political agenda. It urges the West to turn the tragedy to its own political advantage by demonstrating its and the international aid organisations’ superior capacity to respond to “basic material needs”—crucial issues given “Iran’s geopolitical and strategic importance.”

With undisguised pleasure, the editorial went on to hail the arrival of a couple of US aid planes in Iran, the first American planes to land in Iran for a decade, as an indication of the international significance of the human disaster in Bam.

The editorial ended on a portentous note: “Earthquakes may have natural causes, but they often have political effects.”

Just to make sure that its readers got the point, the very next day the Guardian followed up this nauseating dish with an article by David Aaronovitch. In a piece entitled “Why did so many have to die in Bam?” he wrote in his usual crude fashion to hammer home his message, using the disaster to extol the virtues of the free market while making cheap jibes at anti-capitalist protesters and critics of the US ruling kleptocracy.

The Californian earthquake—Aaronovitch asserted—was not a disaster because, despite the conception of people like Michael Moore that corporate greed put safety and regulation way behind the desire for a quick buck, California regarded the protection of its citizens from falling masonry as enormously important.

This enthusiastic cheerleader for the “American way” is seemingly oblivious to what is blindingly obvious to everyone else. Billions of people all over the world live under the rule of capitalism, and whether or not this takes the form of a liberal democracy, still face misery, squalor and homelessness—including millions in California and the US. And it seems to have escaped his notice that the people of California had their “free” election overturned by the losing party.

One of the Guardian’s readers wrote in to contradict Aaronovitch’s rose-tinted view of US capitalism with a graphic example of America’s tender loving care for its citizens. He had been in Florida in 1993 when Hurricane Andrew had struck, wrecking thousands of homes. “There was,” he wrote, “an outcry when it was discovered that much of this was due to the fact that, in a known high-risk area for hurricanes, builders had attached many roofs with staples rather than nails to save money.”

More important still, it is worth examining just how these paragons of Western liberal democracy, US and Britain, which are after all the richest and fourth-richest countries in the world, respectively, responded to the Bam quake.

Hilary Benn, secretary of state for international development (DfID), gave the lie to Britain’s magnanimity. He said that Britain had sent 68 search-and-rescue specialists on a DfiD-organised charter flight. The team consisted of firefighters, specialists from British NGOs including the International Rescue Corps, Save the Children, Canis, Rapid and Bird, and staff from DfID. They had sniffer dogs and thermal-imaging equipment to help them sift through the rubble. The DfiD team was assessing what else was needed.

In other words, all that Her Majesty’s Government had done was charter a plane for the aid agencies and send a few staffers out to Bam. Such a paltry effort was hardly going to break the Exchequer. Most of the costs were borne by the charities, funded out of voluntary donations by the public at large.

President Bush’s response was even more appalling.

James Astill, the Guardian’s own correspondent in Bam, exposed the US response for the sham and propaganda stunt that it was, describing it as “nothing grand...except the symbolism.” The much-vaunted American field hospital was “small, arrived late and according to many observers was surplus to requirements,” he added.

Thirteen foreign field hospitals began opening in Bam, 36 hours after the earthquake. The US team took five days to arrive. The team had to wait for a C-17 military transport plane to fly it to Frankfurt and then wait in Kuwait for clearance by the Iranian authorities. In the end, the search-and-rescue team was dropped off in Kuwait as being no longer necessary.

Most of the survivors were pulled from the rubble by the Red Crescent’s team of Iranian volunteers. Hardly any were pulled out by the international rescue teams.

The US doctor had plenty of time to talk to Astill because “patients were in short supply,” partly because so few had survived and partly because the American field hospital couldn’t provide the treatments required. Five hours after opening, the 14 doctors and surgeons had treated just 12 patients.

Dr. Georgyi Roshchin, head of the 100-bed Ukrainian field hospital that had been operating since the Monday after the earthquake and had treated nearly 200 patients the previous day, told theGuardian reporter, “The American hospital is a political question. They have a very small hospital. We have a very big hospital.”

The insignificance of the US disaster relief stands in stark contrast to the magnitude of the devastation and the $700 million to $1 billion that the United Nations has estimated is needed for Bam’s long-term recovery and reconstruction.

The Iranian government has allocated less than half this figure—$425 million for relief operations in credit and banking facilities for the reconstruction effort—and the Iranian banks expect to loan $82.5 million to build 10,000 homes and farms in Bam. On top of this, 36 bilateral agencies, including six major international NGOs, and seven UN Agencies have provided assistance valued at a total of $100 million for the relief effort.

The US is entirely capable of paying the rest. It is, after all, a drop in the ocean compared with the billions of dollars the US has lavished on its criminal wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington is spending billions every month on the occupation of Iraq. And make no mistake—money will be forthcoming if it comes to waging war against Iran and destroying lives rather than saving them.

The Bush administration lost no time in using the disaster as an excuse to ease the 25-year-old sanctions against Iran, but only because they had enabled European, Russian and Japanese corporations to steal a march on the US in carving up the Iranian market between them. Restrictions have also been lifted on the movement of funds to Iran.

The easing of sanctions is part of Washington’s attempt to reassert its political and economic dominance over this key strategic country in the Middle East. It follows Iran’s increasing military encirclement by the US and its acceptance of US demands to inspect its nuclear facilities. Bush has made it clear that normal relations depended upon Iran abandoning nuclear weapons, fighting terrorism and embracing democracy. The latter demand is a sure sign that the US is stepping up its sordid political intrigues against the Iranian people. At any time, the easing of sanctions could be reversed if Iran fails to toe the US line.

Iran occupies the pride of place in the Bush administration’s “axis of evil.” It is still in line to receive the treatment meted out to Iraq. So for every life saved by the Western aid effort hailed by the Guardian, thousands more could yet be taken.