Not much has been heard from the Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, the theocratic ruler of Iran, since a devastating earthquake hit the southeastern city of Bam early Friday. His business is politics, not humanitarian relief.
But fortunately for the survivors, the international community has put politics aside to rush aid to the victims. The U.S., using its new presence in Iraq as a staging point for disaster relief teams flown from America, was quickly on the scene to try to save some of the thousands buried in rubble. The death toll, including those buried in debris and beyond rescue, could run as high as 40,000, according to one estimate.
The U.S. also is flying in some 150,000 pounds of medicines and surgical supplies from bases in Kuwait to the wrecked city in southeastern Iran. The build-up for a war in Iraq has now become a readily available resource for treating wounds inflicted by a natural disaster. Equally valuable are emergency skills for warding off the possibility of an epidemic caused by the pollution of water supplies.
Relief teams from all parts of the world, including China and Russia, are on the scene as well, putting aside past differences to save lives. The European Union has pledged euro2.3 million in relief aid. The money, to be administered by various relief organizations, will go for search and rescue teams, field hospitals, water, shelter, heating devices and other non-food items. Among the relief agencies at work are the United Nations, the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent.
The ability of relief organizations around the world to mobilize for this disaster has been truly remarkable. As of Saturday, according to a U.N. spokeswoman, there were teams from 20 nations on the ground. Iranians themselves have flocked to blood donation centers and other aid facilities to help the victims.
One reason for the massive devastation is that Iran remains a poor country despite its oil wealth. The homes that collapsed in the quake were mostly made out of primitive mud bricks, which crumble when an earthquake hits. They cluster in the shadow of a 2,000-year-old fortress that looms above the landscape and attracts thousands of tourists each year. The land is well irrigated and lush with citrus trees and other semi-tropical growth.
But Bam is all too representative of Iran's shortcomings in economic development. The country's theocrats have squandered oil wealth on state security forces to control the population, missiles to intimidate neighboring countries, support for terrorists and nuclear plants designed eventually to produce warheads to further intimidate those peoples the ayatollahs see as their enemies. Creating the conditions for a viable, wealth-producing economy that could lift the standard of living is beyond their competence.
Amid the rescue operations the dead were being buried in mass graves dug out of the soil by bulldozers. It is an irony that a regime that professes religious beliefs has so little regard for the well-being of the people it rules.
It is another irony that the fear of terrorism, which Iran's ayatollahs sponsor, has enhanced the skills of the American rescue teams. They employ dogs to sniff out survivors. Some members are adept at emergency surgery under primitive conditions. They would be on the scene if some disaster, natural or manmade, struck an American city. But it was Bam where disaster struck. Surely the people there have cause to give thanks that, in a world of politics, the humanitarian instinct survives.