[N]othing terrifies a repressive regime quite like a natural disaster. Authoritarian states rule by fear and by projecting an aura of total control. When they suddenly seem short-staffed, absent or disorganized, their subjects can become dangerously emboldened. It's something to keep in mind as two of the most repressive regimes on the planet -- China and Burma -- struggle to respond to devastating disasters: the Sichuan earthquake and Cyclone Nargis. In both cases, the disasters have exposed grave political weaknesses within the regimes -- and both crises have the potential to ignite levels of public rage that would be difficult to control.2
A regime's failure to respond promptly and effectively to suffering caused by a natural disaster, the failure that the opposition can exploit, can indeed become a factor in its downfall. Such was the case with the Shah's regime and the earthquake of 1978 that wiped out Tabas and damaged forty other villages in Iran.
Michel Foucault reported in Corriere della sera on 28 September 1978:
Who will rebuild Tabas today? Who will rebuild Iran after the earthquake of Friday, September 8 [Black Friday, when the army massacred hundreds of protesters in Djaleh Square of Tehran], right under the treads of the tanks? The fragile political edifice has not yet fallen to the ground, but it is irreparably cracked from top to bottom.
In the torrid heat, under the only palm trees still standing, the last survivors of Tabas work away at the rubble. The dead are still stretching their arms to hold up walls that no longer exist. Men, their faces turned toward the ground, curse the Shah. The bulldozers have arrived, accompanied by the empress; she was ill received. However, mullahs rush in from the entire region; and young people in Tehran go discreetly from one friendly house to another, collecting funds before leaving for Tabas. "Help your brothers, but nothing through the government, nothing for it," is the call that Ayatollah Khomeini has just issued from exile in Iraq.3
Neither Islamic nor Marxist nor liberal revolutionaries of Iran, however, called upon the West to claim its "right to protect" and send its armies to save them from the Shah. They overthrew the Shah's regime on their own, and Iran's Islamic Revolution has grown into a republic that can survive natural disasters, such as the earthquake of 2003 that destroyed Bam, killing more than 20,000 and injuring many more.
One of the casualties of the Bam earthquake was an American man, Tobb Dell'Oro, who was vacationing with his fiancée Adele Freedman in the city. Freedman, who credits the "kindness of the Iranian people" for her survival,4 became the subject of an important documentary film, Bam 6.6: Humanity Has No Borders (Dir. Jahangir Golestan-Parast, 2007), which shows Iranians' solicitude for her wellbeing and gracious hospitality to her parents who initially thought Iran would be a terrible place for Jewish Americans like them to visit but have changed their minds about the Iranian people.
The Bam earthquake also moved many of the normally fractious Iranian diaspora, as well as the populace of Iran, to solidarity, holding benefits and raising funds for their countrymen and women in need back home.
Artists did their part, too. Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the finest musician in Iran, held a concert
همنوا با بم [In Harmony with Bam] with Hossein Alizadeh, Kayhan Kalhor, and Homayoun Shajarian in remembrance of the victims of the earthquake.
Iran's Islamic government, by the way, did not reject international, including American, offers of assistance -- unlike the Bush White House who didn't let Cuba or Iran help Americans after Hurricane Katrina -- and welcomed international NGOs as well, even though well-intentioned outsiders can create as many hindrances as aids they bring:
In a recent lessons-learned meeting on the Bam earthquake in Iran, a polite and respectful colleague from the Iranian Ministry of Health related his frustration at international NGO coordination in the early days of the emergency. He said that, at the same time as he was desperately trying to set up field hospitals and bury the dead, representatives from over 100 international NGOs had individually requested meetings with him. He appreciated their help, he said, but some organisations wanted to ask him about the siting of rural clinics when he was still trying to arrange emergency medical evacuations. Was there no way, he asked, that these agencies could organise themselves better in the early days of a disaster?5
But Iran's government, even under President Khatami, would not have accepted international relief if it had been imposed upon it by a show of force.
1 Robert D. Kaplan, "Aid at the Point of a Gun," New York Times, 14 May 2008.
2 Naomi Klein, "Regime-Quakes in Burma and China," The Nation, 15 May 2008.
3 Michel Foucault, "The Army -- When the Earth Quakes," in Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, U of Chicago P, 2005, p. 190. An endnote omitted from the quotation and replaced by a parenthetical editorial clarification.
4 Corey Kilgannon, "For One Earthquake Survivor, Joy Is Tempered by Sorrow," New York Times, 10 January 2004.
5 Jenty Wood, "Improving NGO Coordination: Lessons from the Bam Earthquake," Humanitarian Practice Network, 2003.