The two earthquakes that hit the northern Iranian town of Tabriz on Saturday—6.4 and 6.3 on the Richter scale—should prompt strong American support for the Iranian people.
The contentious relationship between the government of Iran and the United States does not include the Iranian people. With more than 300 dead and over 5,000 wounded, the human suffering is massive. Now, as always, they bear the brunt of Tehran’s repressive, autocratic regime, whose own disaster relief efforts have been woefully inadequate.
The response from the Obama Administration has been low-key but sympathetic. The State Department stated Monday that Americans may donate food and medicine to Iranians without fear of prosecution for breaking sanctions on Iran. “Our hearts go out to those people who are affected,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday. “Americans wishing to provide humanitarian assistance to Iranians during this time may donate food and medicine without obtaining an Iranian transactions regulations license,” she said, a precedent set by President George W. Bush after Iran’s 2003 earthquake.
The Iranian government itself is acting with stunning indifference to the suffering caused by the earthquake. For instance, less than 24 hours after the quakes, officials declared search-and-rescue operations to be over—in spite of the fact that some villages in the area are so remote that they cannot even be reached by car.
In the early stages after the response, private citizens helping each other were the only rescuers at hand. Relief supplies and medical care has also been in short supply, leaving thousands still stranded.
Not only that, but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left the country on Monday morning for a meeting on Syria of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. Not surprisingly, this is widely interpreted in Iran as a display of indifference to his suffering constituents. His government has also rejected any offers of international aid, despite the widespread need.
This is all par for the course for the Iranian leadership. In The Wall Street Journal, Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, wrote recently about Iran’s human rights situation, which has been deteriorating even as the West has focused (unsuccessfully) on curbing Iran’s nuclear program:
Support for human rights in Iran is more than a moral duty for any democratic nation. It should also be a strategic pillar of the West’s policy toward the Islamic Republic. The Iranian people’s full voice will never be heard as long as the repression continues. By speaking out, the United States and other Western powers can reassure Iranians that they have allies, empowering them to continue fighting for their cause: a free and democratic Iran—a cause shared by the Iranian people and the West.
Measures in support of human rights in Iran should be on the table. These include strong diplomacy to expose the Tehran regime’s brutal human rights record and international pressure to improve it, as well as facilitating communication between opposition groups and dissidents in Iran. Right now, however, Iranians need all the humanitarian help they can get.