Rebuff of Israel Angers Iranians
December 29, 2003
The New York Sun
Many Iranians are outraged with their governments handling of the devastating earthquake - which claimed at least 22,000 victims - criticizing everything from the slow reaction by the leadership to its refusal to accept Israeli aid.
"The citizens displayed good spirit but the leadership was absent," wrote the Iranian newspaper Shargh yesterday in a typical, but unprecedented, rebuke of the mullah regime.
Although the government has under its command half a million Revolutionary Guards and 2 million Bassij volunteers, and though the military is equipped with heavy machinery like bulldozers and earth-moving vehicles, Shargh added in an editorial, it was the ordinary citizens who had to dig "with their fingernails" into the ground to find any survivors.
"All our callers from Iran yesterday opened their remarks with criticism of the government," Menashe Amir, who heads Israel Radios Farsi broadcasting arm, told The New York Sun. "They all were also extremely complimentary of Israel."
Israel, which has vast experience in rescue operations, was the only nation excluded by Iran from joining the international humanitarian effort around the city of Bam, where the death toll continues to climb.
Israelis nevertheless set up bank accounts for donations that would be transferred to Iran through third parties.
The latest government death toll stood yesterday at 22,000, but rescue experts said they expected the numbers to reach at least 30,000.The leader of an Iranian relief team, Ahmad Najafi, told the Associated Press the toll could reach 40,000.
Mr. Amir noted that, decades later, previous earthquakes in Iran still dont have reliable casualty estimates, and that the numbers in this case would probably will never be known.
Part of the problem, he said, was that the government, slow to react in the first place, and set up its rescue teams where most of the foreign press was concentrated, the city of Bam. Neighboring villages were left unattended, with the casualties uncounted.
International aid continued to pour into Bam yesterday. Rescuers and aid came from 35 nations, including America, despite Washingtons strong political differences with the regime it considers part of the "axis of evil." America was expected to send 75 tons of medical supplies and about 200 rescue and medical experts, officials said.
"The reception was beyond expectations," Air Force Master Sergeant Jeff Bohn, who was on the first American plane to land in Iran in over a decade, told Associated Press."The warmth that the Iranian military and civil aviation workers gave us was truly incredible."
"Everyone is doing their best to help, but the disaster is so huge that I believe no matter how much is done we cannot meet the peoples expectations," said President Hatami, who has been criticized by many Iranians for his own failure to appear at the earthquake site.
But not all foreign aid was welcome. A spokesman for the interior ministry said that unlike in an earthquake a decade ago, when Iran refused Western aid, this time it would accept aid from all. But he added that would not include "the Zionist entity."
The interior minister, Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari, told the AP that Iran accepted U.S. government help and not Israeli help because Tehran considers America a legitimate government, but opposes Israel for its actions against Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel "is a force of occupation," he said. As for Americans, Mr. Lari said. "I believe it is possible that they have a humanitarian sensibility in such a dramatic situation."
In a statement issued in Jerusalem, the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, said Israel sent condolences to the people of Iran, adding that in moments like this the entire international community should help.
A spokesman for the United Nations team responsible for coordinating international effort, Alain Pasche, refused to directly refer to Israels rebuffed help offer. But he told the Hebrew Web site, Y-Net, that after two days on the ground he senses "a huge difference between the authorities and the citizens," on that and other issues.
Mr. Amir, who beams his radio show in Farsi from Jerusalem in a broadcast that has become extremely popular in Iran, told the Sun the failure of the regime to deal with the earthquake dominated the calls in his call-in show yesterday.
The failure of the government to accept aid from Israel was emblematic of the publics anger at the government, he added.
Some callers were sarcastic, saying, "Why should Iran ask for international aid, when it was going to turn the money to Palestinian terrorists anyway," Mr. Amir said. Others simply extolled Israel as an enlightened nation offering help to the Iranian people.
An avid follower of internal Iranian trends, Mr. Amir said that the amount of criticism in the Iranian press in the wake of the earthquake was unprecedented.
Iranian papers compared last weeks Californias earthquake, which was almost as powerful but resulted in two casualties, to the tens of thousands dead Iranians. Others criticized Mr. Hatami for failing to appear at the scene. Yesterday, Mr. Hatami appeared on national TV, "begging for forgiveness," according to Mr. Amir. The president noted that he sent no less than five cabinet ministers to Bam.
But Mr. Amir doubts that the public anger, though more vocal than ever in the past, would turn the physical earthquake into a political one.
"The government failure is clear to all," he said. "But this dictatorial regime has a strong hold over the country,and this event would not remove it."
Also yesterday, an Iranian navy helicopter crashed 30 miles southwest of Bam after delivering tents and blankets,the regional governors office said. All three crewmen were killed, he said. The AP also reported that looters grabbed food from warehouses and grocery shops.
DEVASTATION A man carries a child who was killed after their home collapsed in a massive earthquake that hit Bam, Iran, killing tens of thousands.