The Politics of the Iranian Earthquake


After all the retrospectives, analyses, and photo essays of 2003 had been completed, the single greatest human tragedy of the year occurred in Bam, Iran, on December 26. An earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale struck southeastern Iran, resulting in the deaths of nearly 35,000 people, with tens of thousands injured. The international community was quick in providing emergency assistance, including the United States. This, naturally, led to speculation whether such a catastrophe would result in a thawing of relations between the two nations, which have not had formal ties since 1980. Unfortunately, United States administration officials, including President Bush himself, were quick to pour salt on the Iranian wound.

Couched in expressions of sympathy for the victims of earthquake were statements accusing Iran of harboring al-Qaeda members, pursuing nuclear weapon technology, and supporting terrorism. Although emphasis was placed on the humanitarian nature of the aid to be provided, one could not escape the overt political message simultaneously conveyed: if you want improved relations with us, it will be on our terms. Subtle wipes, including questioning why so many people died in Bam, while similar strength earthquakes in the United States had caused little casualties or damage, were also common. This was legitimate criticism, no doubt, but one of poor timing, as crews were still digging through the rubble in search of survivors.

To further goad the Iranians, the Bush administration offered to send Elizabeth Dole to head a delegation from the American Red Cross (accompanied by an unspecified Bush family member) to Iran. No one actually expected the full implications of such a high-profile visit in the wake of the disaster to be so quickly digested by the Iranians. Yet, the United States did not miss the opportunity to put President Mohammad Khatami in an awkward position. He had previously thanked the Americans for their help, but faced pressure from more conservative elements in the government to be less forthcoming. Although the official reply was to delay this visit, the American media wasted no time in saying the Iranians had “rebuffed” the proposal. The Untied States may not have kicked Iran while it was down, but they made sure to step on their toes.

As ramifications of the Bam earthquake were being studied, simultaneous political, if not geologic, fault lines were clearly detected in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On the same day as the earthquake, the second assassination attempt in two weeks on the life of Pakistan’s self-appointed President-General, Pervez Musharraf, occurred. Musharraf narrowly escaped two suicide bombers who detonated their vehicles as his motorcade passed.

As with most rulers who gain power via coup d’etat, but now with a renewed sense of urgency, Musharraf quickly orchestrated a parliamentary vote of confidence to secure his rule as President through 2007. This purported stamp of legitimacy was marred by the walkout of a significant portion of the opposition, allowing him to easily secure the votes needed.

In addition, the MMA (Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal), a coalition of Islamic parties, gave their tacit approval–although neither supporting nor rejecting the confidence vote–on the condition he step down as Army Chief by the end of 2004. Musharraf, as expected, conveniently gained additional powers by amending Pakistan’s 1973 constitution, allowing him now to unilaterally dismiss the prime minister and dissolve parliament by decree.

Pakistan’s neighbor, Afghanistan, also found itself at the center of crisis during the recent convening of a Loya Girga or Grand Assembly to adopt a new constitution for the country. Initially scheduled for 10 days, the nearly three week conference was fraught with in-fighting, threatened walkouts, and rancorous debate among the Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic factions over citizenship, official languages and the national anthem. More significant was the discussion of President’s Hamid Karzai’s demand for a strong, centralized presidency. Again this issue split along ethnic lines, supported by the Pashtuns to which Karzai belongs, and opposed by the non-Pashtun groups of the former Northern Alliance, who were in favor of a strong parliamentary system. The former seems to have won out.

Thus, Pakistan has seen two assassination attempts on its unelected President (likely perpetrated al-Qaeda elements prevalent in Pakistan), who brokered a cozy deal with Islamic parties to keep himself in power for three additional year with expanded authority. One cannot help but view these developments with concern, relegating Pakistan to potential political instability.

In Afghanistan, a strong presidency, unresolved ethnic tensions in a country still controlled by warlords, and continued agitation and re-emergence of the Taliban, especially in Zabul and Uruzgan provinces, are similarly a recipe for disaster and political unrest. Unlike Pakistan, general elections will be held in June 2004, a critical period which will test Afghanistan’s new constitution.

A terrible earthquake struck Bam, Iran. Fault lines portending future earthquakes, however, seem to likewise run through Islamabad and Kabul. Should these slip, it will make rebuilding the ancient city of Bam the easiest reconstruction job in the region.

RANNIE AMIRI is an observer, commentator, and exponent of issues dealing with the Arab and Islamic worlds. Amiri can be reached at:


Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.