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Dispatch | An Uncovered Earthquake

by D.H.

20 Aug 2012 17:50Comments
2012-08-13T132540Z_722531972_GM2E88D1NG201_RTRMADP_3_IRAN-EARTHQUAKE.JPGWhen compassionate action is tantamount to political protest.

[ news analysis ] What does the Iranian government's delay in covering the August 11 earthquakes in East Azerbaijan indicate to the Iranian people? A host of things, it seems, and different things to different people.

Among government supporters, many believe there was no delay at all in the state's response to the disaster. The conservative Resalat newspaper declared that anyone speaking to the contrary is beating the enemy drum. Reporters who fabricate such rumors are not journalists, Resalat asserted, but vicious "news peddlers." Some conservative bloggers have written that all "rumors" regarding the state's indifference toward the impacted region should be laid to rest after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's visit there.

It would be very difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the official rescue operation in East Azerbaijan. Less than two days after the earthquake, the government claimed that the rescue operations had concluded, and as successfully as such things can conclude. Meanwhile, independent sources, as well as parliament members from East Azerbaijan, spoke of closed roads, lack of food and water, and people yet to be rescued from under the rubble.

We can speak with more certainty regarding the coverage the earthquake received in the state media. The state broadcaster, we know, initially marginalized the event, downplaying the extent of damage inflicted by the disaster. For more than 24 hours, television stations made no change to their prearranged programming, and reports on the earthquake were delivered as second or third items on the regularly scheduled news programs. Nearly all state-owned newspapers failed to make the earthquake the lead story on their front pages.

Why should the Iranian government want to downplay the earthquake? What possible reason could exist? Again, it depends on whom you ask. The range of responses can help us understand something about what Iranians are making of the whole situation. When the causes of an event are not known, the conjectures offered by people tell us a great deal about the society in which they live.

The most implausible explanation for the delay may well be the most probable one: the tragedy occurred on an evening considered particularly sacred in Islam, an evening during which, as the state media had been reminding the people for days, the celestial gates of mercy are flung wide open. The government, some say, did not want to contrast this theological belief with the harsh reality of the disaster.

Such an explanation does not spring from nowhere. It requires, for example, a critical attitude toward religion. If offered by a secular person, it indicates a total rejection of the theological conception of the sacred. If offered by a believer, it signifies the ability to see a difference between one's own version of Islam and the version offered by the state.

Another explanation refers to the tensions among the various national identities within Iran. The population of the impacted region is Turkish, and some critics believe the Fars-dominated government did not cover the disaster adequately for the same reason that Turkish, Kurdish, and Baluch regions in Iran regularly receive a smaller share of national resources and a less significant role in shaping the national identity. Such complaints have been on the rise, particularly in Azerbaijan. To offer racism as a cause of the situation requires, at the very least, an acknowledgement of the tensions that exist within the Iranian national identity. For many, particularly in Azerbaijan, it goes beyond acknowledgement and becomes a call for redefining the coordinates of that identity.

Yet a third explanation posits that the problem was one of mismanagement, and of misaligned priorities in particular. The earthquake happened a few days before two major foreign relations events: the Quds Day demonstrations, led by the government in support of Palestine; and the summit of the heads of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran. The explanation is that the government is so focused on these events that everything else is consequently treated as a matter of secondary importance. An Iranian poet, Mohammad Reza Alipayam, posted a little ditty on his blog that echoed this sentiment.

Who ever told you we're a lazy government?

We're engaged in all Arab issues, to the hilt.

Stop nagging about the earthquake in Iran:

Right now we have Damascus and Aleppo to deal with.

Compared to Alipayam's other poems, it's a mild one, but it obviously made an impression on the government. Alipayam was called in for questioning (for the first time) and, by last report, is now in jail.

Each of the three explanations levels a serious criticism against a major tenet of the Islamic Republic: the idea of a single, true religion; the notion of a seamlessly unified nation; and the vision of Iran as an aggressive force within the region.

It brings us to the original question: What do the Iranian people make of the government's failure to cover the earthquake in East Azerbaijan? For those who have not taken any direct action in response to the earthquake, the situation is yet another widening of the rift between them and the government.

But for those who have chosen to take any independent action in regard to the earthquake, it's a different game altogether. Because the government's failure to cover the event was in such stark contrast to the population's awareness of the event (through independent and foreign sources), and because both the state and the people were aware of this awareness, any independent act of assistance toward the victims of the earthquake also acquired a political dimension. If you donated blood or money to the relief efforts, wrote about or drove to the impacted region, you were practically part of a protest against the government's attitude toward the situation. The simplest expression of humanitarian sentiments could not be read without a political lens. Opposition websites found themselves in the enviable position where simply reporting humanitarian acts -- soccer players fundraising for victims, college students giving blood, actors traveling to the scene of the tragedy -- was tantamount to reporting acts of political resistance. Resalat, after all, was correct in its assessment.

The few organized liberal institutions in Iran, as expected, took advantage of the situation. Many NGOs, including those working toward educational reform and even the embattled Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds, organized their own convoys of assistance. Turkish nationalists organized major fundraisers. And even the warring factions within the regime itself began biting at each other's necks over who would get to own the superior moral position.

The Islamic Republic has always claimed a monopoly on absolute moral superiority. With every passing year, this claim, which once yielded considerable political power, is further reduced to the level of political playacting. China, for example, has experienced a similar phenomenon. The Chinese government's rhetoric of revolutionary and socialist values, too, is increasingly losing its role in sustaining the legitimacy of that regime (though that is not to say that, in either case, there are not other sources of legitimacy). China experienced a very similar drama in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. In that drama, even the number of victims acquired a political significance, and any investigation into the event was seen as treason.

For now, the Iranian government's discourse of moral superiority still serves a real function. It still echoes true with a portion of the population. (What we must ask is: Exactly which portion, and how large is it?) At the same time, this discourse contributes to the spontaneous creation of spaces such as the one described in this article, where dissidence finds easy manifestation. The ready access to information, combined with the population's awareness of itself as a critical subject, erodes the effect of this type of rhetoric. At some point, it may even be too expensive for the regime to maintain a discourse of absolute moral legitimacy, because the section of the population that believes it will have been reduced to a very thin margin. The regime and the population would then speak to one another more and more directly about the actual issues at hand. Such a conversation would inevitably be a more violent one.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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