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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 10:49 GMT
The politics of earthquakes

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Earthquakes sometimes do more than destroy lives and buildings - they can reshape the political landscape.

The earthquake in Bam has already seen a US offer to help Iran and an Iranian acceptance. This is between two countries which normally exchange insults.

Iran's readiness to accept a direct offer of help from Washington follows its agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow more intrusive inspections of its nuclear programme.

The handling of this crisis will help determine President Khatami's continuing popularity
This has led the US Secretary of State Colin Powell to say in an interview with the Washington Post: "There are things happening and therefore we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future."

A recent example of an effect on policy was the earthquake in Turkey in August 1999, which killed about 15,000 people.

Prompt action by Greece in sending help led to a rapprochement between two traditional enemies. The Greek Foreign Minister, George Papandreou, became something of a hero in Turkey.

Greece announced that it was supporting Turkish entry into the European Union with Mr Papandreou declaring: "We want to become the steam engine inside the EU to help Turkey's European course."

The earthquake also showed the Turkish political establishment that it had to reform.

The powerful role of the military in Turkey was seriously questioned because the army failed to respond to the disaster quickly, arguing that it was up to the civilian authorities.

Turkish women in Celtiksuyu
Turkey's earthquake brought it closer to Greece
The collapse of so many modern buildings revealed that building regulations had simply been ignored in the rush to industrialise the mud plains east of Istanbul, despite warnings that this was earthquake territory of the most vulnerable kind.

Another example of a "political" earthquake was in Nicaragua in 1972.

This forgotten part of Central America was under the rule of the Somoza family and it wasn't until the capital Managua was all but destroyed that the attention of the outside world turned to this particularly nasty little dictatorship.

What the outside world saw was not pleasant. President Anastasio Somoza failed to organise a proper rescue and rebuilding effort.

Huge parts of the capital lay in waste for years. This led to further unrest, culminating in the uprising which brought the Sandinistas to power in 1979.

Cost factor

There are many small kilns producing bricks but because of the demand, these are not fired for the 28 days needed to make them strong
Professor Mohsen Aboutorabi
In Bam, the same kind of story is emerging which was evident in Turkey.

Mohsen Aboutorabi, professor of architecture at the University of Central England who was in Bam for a conference two years ago, told BBC News Online: "In Bam and other cities, I found that much of the building is done by people putting up their own houses. But they cannot afford proper materials and do not use skilled labour.

"There are many small kilns producing bricks but because of the demand, these are not fired for the 28 days needed to make them strong. I banged two bricks together and they just fell to pieces.

"For high rise buildings, the regulations are better enforced. But the demand for housing is so big. Iran's population has doubled in the last 20 years," he said.

Turning point?

Professor Aboutorabi said that there was bound to be a political effect from the earthquake. "If the political leaders do not listen to the people, they will be in trouble," he said.

Woman grieves over the body of her daughter in Bam
Many bodies are believed to be still under the rubble in Bam
He added, however: "Traditionally in Iran, people tend to rally behind the government and this might give the government an umbrella for a time."

Iran is currently poised delicately both internally and externally. The reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2001 in what was seen as a further move away from clerical rule.

The handling of this crisis will help determine his continuing popularity. He has got off to a good start by admitting that Iran cannot cope on its own and asking for outside help (except from Israel... some things do not change).

This openness could be a development of Iran's readiness to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency's insistence that the country's nuclear programme be put under proper monitoring.

Fatalism

One of Iran's leading earthquake experts, Professor Bahram Akasheh of Tehran University, was quoted recently by the Australian Institute of Geoscientists as saying that Tehran itself should be moved because it is at such high risk.

"It would be better to have the capital in somewhere near Isfahan: that would be safer. Other countries have changed their capital without any adverse effect."

Earthquake education is very poor in Iran. Most people think that whatever God wills, will happen. This is absolutely wrong. This thinking is poisonous
Professor Bahram Akasheh
Professor Akasheh said little heed was paid to regulations.

"Building regulations were introduced but nobody actually does everything that the regulations stipulate." One of the most difficult problems, he said, was the air of fatalism with which Iranians view earthquakes.

"Earthquake education is very poor in Iran. Most people think that whatever God wills, will happen. This is absolutely wrong. This thinking is poisonous."

US rapprochement?

Up until now, US policy towards Iran has veered between treating it as part of the "axis of evil", as President Bush once called it, and adopting the more pragmatic approach of European countries.

However, American diplomacy has recently had a success in the decision by Libyan to declare and abandon whatever programmes it has for weapons of mass destruction.

This followed Tehran's acceptance of the IAEA additional protocol.

But Mr Powell has made it clear that there were still issues with Iran to be resolved.

"We still have concerns about terrorist activities, of course, and there are other issues with respect to al-Qaeda and other matters that we'll have to keep in mind."

Among these "other matters" might be the charge by Israel that Iran supports Hamas and other groups attacking Israel.

Indeed, if Washington were to adopt a softer approach to Tehran, the Israelis might not be best pleased. Senior Israeli security chiefs regard Iran as their "number one" threat.




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