Iran and Iraq are still struggling with the aftermath of a 7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck along their shared border on Nov. 12. The recovery effort has been slowed by politics, distrust and the legacy of war.
The quake – the deadliest in the world this year – killed more than 500, injured some 7,000 and left 70,000 people in both countries in need of shelter.
The earthquake-affected region is dominated by the Kurds, the largest nation in the world without a state. Around 35 million Kurds inhabit a mountainous zone straddling Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia.
The Kurdish population hit hardest by the recent quake is well-acquainted with tragedy. The epicenter was 20 miles southwest of Halabja, a city in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, and about 18 miles from the city of Sarpol-e Zahab, across the border in Iranian Kurdistan, my homeland.
Both places suffered severely during the Iran-Iraq war, which killed an estimated 1.25 million people between 1980 and 1988. Halabja is sometimes known as “Kurdistan’s Hiroshima” because Saddam Hussein’s government attacked it with poison gas in the closing days of the war, killing more than 5,000.
Sarpol-e Zahab was completely destroyed in the early days of the Iran-Iraq war, then rebuilt, and again destroyed in the Nov. 12 earthquake.
The complex politics around the Kurdish people are my academic specialty as a professor at Indiana University.
The Kurdish minority in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey has long been repressed by those national governments, and tensions have been particularly high in Iraq following a Sept. 25 referendum for Kurdish independence in which 93 percent of voters favored separating from Iraq.
The political tension led earthquake victims to fears that governmental relief might be slow or insufficient. In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tweeted that he had sent health and aid agencies to Kurdistan – even though just before the earthquake he had sent troops to reassert control over the contested region, occupying the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Kurdish areas of Turkey and Syria were unaffected by the quake.
Like Iraq, Turkey views Kurdish rebels as a threat to national security. Just 12 hours before the earthquake hit, in the morning of Nov. 12, Turkish fighter jets had bombed the earthquake-affected region in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, during an ongoing offensive against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Still, some 15 hours later, Turkish military cargo planes were the first to deliver relief supplies to quake-hit Iraqi Kurdistan.
Like Iraq and Turkey, Syria also views the Kurds as a threat to its national security. For decades, the Kurdish minority in Syria was deprived of basic human rights such as citizenship and teaching their children the Kurdish language. After the emergence of the Islamic State following the Arab Spring, Syrian Kurds were of the most effective forces in the war to defeat the insurgent terrorist group. Expressions of solidarity, as well as aid, have been sent from Syrian and Turkish Kurds to the earthquake-affected region in Iraq and Iran.
A struggling relief effort in Iran
Iran’s response to the crisis along its Kurdish-dominated western border – where the earthquake was most severe and at least 500 people died – on the other hand, seems to be tinged with politics.
Though Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a message of condolence, ordered first responders to hasten to help those trapped under the rubble and declared a national day of mourning, the relief effort has been plagued with problems, even two weeks after the quake.
Some issues are logistical. The affected Kurdish areas are mostly remote and mountainous, making victims difficult to reach. But a lack of coordination between the Iranian Red Crescent and military forces has also slowed the rescue effort.
Even so, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has rejected offers of international assistance from the U.S., Israel and others. On Nov. 13, he tweeted, “We are grateful for global expressions of sympathy and offers of assistance. For now, we can manage with our own resources.”
Iran’s history of repressing its Kurdish population has sparked pointed criticism of the government’s earthquake response.
Many Kurds feel abandoned. “Why do they [the Iranian regime] send aid to Lebanon, Palestine, Syria but not us?” said one victim from Sarpol Zahab in a YouTube interview. “It must be because we are Kurds that the Iranian government is not helping us.” A Facebook page called “Kirmashan” has become the voice of quake-affected people in Iran, as well as a campaign criticizing the government for its lack of response.
Adding to the political complexity of the tragedy is the fact that many of the dead lived in the Mehr Housing, affordable units opened in 2007 by former Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. During a visit to earthquake-affected areas, President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged that government-built structures had collapsed while private constructions remained standing and vowed to “find the culprits.”
On Nov. 14, Iran’s national day of mourning for the earthquake, four national newspapers and several local newspapers published front-page headlines in the Kurdish language. This rare move of solidarity with the Kurds broke unwritten law in Iran, where minority languages are technically allowed but forbidden in practice.
In the absence of effective government aid, individuals and nonprofit organizations are stepping in to help Iranian earthquake victims.
Several athletes – including the Kurdish Olympic weightlifter Kianoush Rostami – have put their gold, silver and bronze medals on auction to raise money for earthquake victims in Iran.
One Tehran University professor, Sadegh Zibakalam, used crowdfunding to raise more than US$300,000 less than 48 hours after the quake. Acknowledging a widespread lack of faith in government, he traveled to the area to supervise aid distribution himself.
Relief efforts in the United States have also run up against politics. Tohid Najafi, a Detroit-based medical professional, raise $200,000 in donations, largely from the Iranian-American community. But in sending the money to Iran he ran afoul of U.S. sanctions.
He is not the only one who’s struggled to get relief funds past the Kafkaesque processes of the U.S. Treasury Department and into Iran.
For long-suffering Kurds, as the age-old Kurdish adage goes: “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” While this devastating quake may have made the Kurds some new friends, at least for the time being, neither the central governments of the region, the U.S. nor even the unstable mountains of Iraq and Iran are among them.