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Iran's Next (Literal) Tectonic Shift

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In mid-January, an earthquake in Haiti killed 230,000 people. Last month, an even larger quake rocked Chile, leaving an estimated 700 people dead, despite the latter being more than 500 times more powerful.

The explanation for how this could be possible is surprising: according to the definitive study done by University of Colorado seismologist Roger Bilham, the damage done by an earthquake is directly proportional to the quality of home and building construction. Poorly-built homes and buildings, he says, are an unrecognized "weapon of mass destruction," and we only need to look at the devastation in Haiti to see that he's right.

And Bilham predicts more to come: if Tehran were hit by an earthquake similar to Haiti's, he says, one million people could die, due to what many geologists believe is the Iranian government's dangerous neglect of earthquake preparation.

Earthquakes are nothing new for Iran -- the most noteworthy in recent memory leveled much of the historic city of Bam in 2003, though Tehran has been jostled frequently throughout its 3000 year history. The key, according to Bilham, is preparing for them by building quality homes and buildings. Without the right preparation, he says, homes are simply "rubble in waiting."

But it's not easy -- in fact, basic human greed and endemic poverty make it a no-brainer for construction crews to cut corners in some of the world's most densely populated and geologically unstable cities. The only way to protect hundreds of thousands of lives is for governments to enact rigorous safety standards. And for that to happen, Christopher Hitchens argues, a government has to be accountable to its people.

Taking this as an approximate analogy or metaphor, people are beginning to notice that the likelihood of perishing in an earthquake, or of being utterly dispossessed by it, is as much a function of the society in which one lives as it is of proximity to a fault...Chileans have long expected their government to be prepared for seismic events, while Haitians are so ground-down and immiserated by repression and corruption that a democratic demand for such protection would seem an almost ethereal prospect.

Geologists have warned the Iranian government for decades that Tehran is built in a dangerous geological area, and that the potential exists for a devastating quake if serious action is not taken. But, as Hitchens rightly points out, Iran's hardliners are too busy silencing peaceful protesters and censoring news and information to bother with trivialities like earthquake preparedness.

While Hitchens takes things a bit too far with his Henny Penny inclusion of the nuclear program into the picture ("what if the rubble were radioactive!"), he does identify a prudent but largely unnoticed opportunity to build up American soft power in Iran without intervening in the ongoing political turmoil:

[I]t should become part of our humanitarianism and our public diplomacy to warn the Iranian people of the man-made reasons that the results of a natural calamity would be hideously multiplied in their case. This, together with the offer of immediate help in earthquake-proofing, enhanced from our experiences in California, is nothing less than a moral responsibility.

Offering to help reinforce Iranian schools and hospitals against the very real prospect of a catastrophic earthquake would send exactly the right message to the Iranian people. It would demonstrate that the US is not out to hurt innocent Iranians, and in fact cares more about them than the Iranian government does. That, coupled with a sustained effort to press Iran's leaders on their human rights violations, is exactly what the Green Movement means when they ask for help from the outside world.

For US policymakers, this couldn't be easier. There's at least two ways to do this, and both are a snap.

First, the Treasury Department could issue a general license authorizing American engineers and workers to provide earthquake preparedness assistance on the ground in Iran. Obviously, this shouldn't apply to military bunkers or underground nuclear facilities, but should at the very least apply to elementary schools and cancer hospitals. American relief workers operated in Iran after the Bam quake with huge success, but were forced to leave when their US-issued permits expired. And American engineers were invited to consult with Iranian scientists under the auspices of a National Academies of Sciences exchange program, but were told that their support would violate US sanctions. Right now every type of US assistance to Iran is prohibited unless explicitly authorized. This should be switched around: allow basic services to go ahead but carve out common-sense no-go zones for military, energy, or security sectors.

Alternatively, Congress can insert a provision in the sanctions bill expected to pass soon. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) has already introduced a bill that would authorize this type of assistance -- HR 4303, the Stand with the Iranian People Act -- and a final version of the petroleum embargo is currently being negotiated. When the conference report is filed and the President signs it into law, the bill should include an amendment that allows kind-hearted Americans to provide for the basic needs of Iranians in need. As it currently stands, US sanctions outlaw nearly all types of assistance -- making the US government complicit in the pain and suffering of the Iranian people. The least we can do for Iranians, literally, is not penalize those who want to help them.

The world responded to the disasters in Haiti and Chile with generosity and humanity, and Americans were at the front of it all. People in Iran recognized this quality all too well from the time when they were on the receiving end in 2003. Now it's time for American policymakers to take the long the view on Iran, especially since the Iranian government seems to be incapable of doing just that. To be sure, the Iranian people will notice the difference.