Iran Factions Use Earthquake Relief Effort to Pursue Power Struggle

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An earthquake survivor weeps as she sits in front of damaged buildings, in a compound which was built under the Mehr state-owned program, in Sarpol-e-Zahab, Iran, November 14, 2017.
An earthquake survivor weeps as she sits in front of damaged buildings, in a compound which was built under the Mehr state-owned program, in Sarpol-e-Zahab, Iran, November 14, 2017.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP

Political infighting among Iran’s ruling elite has moved on to a new battleground: the relief effort after an earthquake that killed at least 530 and injured thousands.

Hard-line media are accusing the government of President Hassan Rohani of reacting too slowly to the November 12 quake, while highlighting aid work by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, a rival power center.

While the government said enough help had been sent to the thousands of people left homeless, media affiliated to Rohani’s rivals painted a different picture with reports from villages where survivors complained about a lack of shelter from the bitter cold.

Rohani allies say this reflects a long-running struggle between the pragmatic president and those who oppose his drive to boost the economy by improving relations with the outside world, notably with the nuclear deal.

“Rohani is very popular,” one Rohani ally told Reuters. “It is so sad to see that even under these sad circumstances when we need unity, they are attacking his government and trying to say that the government is incompetent to help people.”

Shortly after the magnitude 7.3 quake, state TV aired scenes from the devastated villages in the western Kermanshah province.

Iran has offers of foreign assistance, saying planeloads of tents, blankets, mattresses and emergency food rations had arrived in areas where at least 30,000 houses were damaged and several villages completely destroyed.

The hard-line, semiofficial Tasnim and Fars news agencies carried reports of the role of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is loyal to supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and its affiliated Basij militia force in helping the survivors.

Khamenei has called on state agencies to speed up their efforts. “This disaster is a test for authorities to perform their duties,” he said. A representative, cleric Abdolhossein Moezi, told state TV after visiting Kermanshah province that more relief was needed.

Editorials in some newspapers accused Tehran of failing to learn the lessons of the 2003 Bam earthquake, when 31,000 people were killed.

State TV covered how the IRGC restored a degree of normality in one of the worst hit towns, Sarpol-e Zahab.

“Immediately after the quake, the IRGC rushed to the area to help,” said Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy head of the Guards. “We set up shelters, field clinics. ... We will not leave until all survivors have a permanent shelter. Our commanders have been working around the clock.”

Commanders of the IRGC, which also runs a business empire in Iran, have repeatedly criticized Rohani’s failure to improve the economy, despite the official lifting last year of most global sanctions under the 2015 nuclear deal.

In some areas, no building was left standing. Elsewhere, survivors have left homes that remain standing, fearing they could come crashing down due to aftershocks. Houses in poor Iranian villages are often made of concrete blocks or mudbrick that can quickly crumble and collapse.

Many of the heavily damaged buildings in Sarpol-e Zahab were part of an affordable housing scheme, initiated in 2011 by Rohani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Angry survivors said the low-quality construction in the affordable housing scheme had caused the high death toll in the town, nestled in the Zagros Mountains along the border with Iraq.

Rohani has ordered an investigation. “It’s clear there has been corruption in construction contracts,” state media reported him as saying in a cabinet meeting on November 15. “Anyone responsible will be punished.”

Ahmadinejad’s adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, denounced the accusations. “Heavy waves of propaganda against [the housing scheme] are aimed at covering up the weakness and inefficiency of the [Rohani] administration in helping quake-hit people,” he said.

Major towns and cities in the Kermanshah province appeared to have escaped heavy damage, witnesses said, while many villages were destroyed.

Rohani has promised more aid and low-interest loans to help survivors rebuild their collapsed homes. State TV showed Iranians around the country gathering goods and warm clothes and blankets for the survivors.

“We need shelter ... it is getting colder. They have distributed some tents, but it was not enough,” Ahmad Irandust, 75, told Reuters from Salas Babajani village by telephone. He said his children had been sleeping outdoors in the freezing cold since the quake occurred. “Don’t leave us alone. Don’t forget us,” he pleaded.

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