Iran’s Earthquake Exposes Political Rifts and Ineffective Governance

This situation persists in spite of the fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani personally visited affected areas to oversee the relief effort. UPI reported upon Rouhani’s tour of the apparently worst-hit province of Kermanshah and noted that he had promised residents his government would do everything in its power to alleviate their suffering and to return water and power to the region.

But a Reuters report on Thursday indicated that hardline opponents of the Rouhani administration had used their own media outlets to attack the government over its response to the disaster. Relying on more sympathetic state-affiliated media outlets, the administration has attempted to portray the relief effort as successful and already adequate in scope, but such accounts appear to be at odds with the facts on the ground and aimed mainly at countering propaganda on the other side.

As Reuters noted, this war of words in the Iranian media seems to suggest that the earthquake has opened up a new front in the conflict between rival political factions. And insofar as those factions are actively opposing each other in their provision of information to the public, it is not unreasonable to assume that they may be standing in the way of each other’s relief efforts.

As was previously reported, the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had assumed broad authority to lead the relief efforts in Kermanshah and elsewhere. Now, with Rouhani personally on the scene, the paramilitary organization is apparently striving to promote public awareness of its own relief efforts while blaming widely recognized deficiencies on government entities that are closer to the president.

Meanwhile, Rouhani has seized upon the opportunity to raise questions about the scale of the devastation, which may be attributable in large part to the wide-ranging influence of the IRGC over building projects throughout the country. In recent years, Iran has been implementing a strategy of economic “privatization” that has frequently served only to shift economic interests out of the hands of state institutions and into the hands of front companies for the IRGC, which increasingly has the appearance of a parallel state structure.

“It’s clear there has been corruption in construction contracts,” Rouhani said on Wednesday, according to the Reuters report. He declined to directly name the powerful IRGC, but he did call attention to the fact that many buildings that had completely collapsed during the earthquake were erected as parts of projects spearheaded by Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose presidency was closely allied with the IRGC and who had personally served as a Guard.

“Anyone responsible will be punished,” Rouhani added. It was not immediately clear whether this threat was backed up by a concrete plan, but the Christian Science Monitor reported that the president had called for an investigation into why state-constructed buildings collapsed so readily. However, the government’s commitment to such an inquiry is questionable in light of the fact that the earthquake was not the first sign of shoddy construction in those government projects.

The CS Monitor report noted that Ahmadinejad-sponsored buildings had been criticized while construction was still ongoing, precisely for the reason that the lack of adequate standards in some two million units could lead to catastrophe in the wake of an earthquake or other natural or man-made disaster. Not only did these criticisms fall on deaf ears at the time, they were apparently forgotten by the time Rouhani took office.

Furthermore, wire re-published an interview with earthquake expert James Jackson in the wake of Sunday’s disaster. In it, the Cambridge University professor and frequent traveler to Iran said that the opportunity for that country to address problems of vulnerability to earthquakes is often missed after a relatively short period of public outcry. Jackson added that this problem is exacerbated by Iran’s largely self-imposed political and cultural isolation, which makes it difficult for Iranian citizens to learn what they might do to help improve outlook for disaster-prone cities.

That same isolation may also diminish the likelihood of Iran accepting assistance or advice from the international community. Indeed, recent reports of the relief effort indicate that the government has turned down offers of help. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif thanked the international community but said on Twitter, “For now we are able to manage with our own resources.”

This, of course, contradicts the widespread reports of inadequate government aid. And while this in turn plays into the criticism being pushed by the IRGC, the acceptance of foreign aid would contribute to a larger set of hardline talking points that characterize the Rouhani administration as weak and insufficiently committed to the Islamic Revolution on account of its diplomatic outreach to the international community. In 2015, that outreach led to the nuclear agreement that freed Iran from myriad economic sanctions, but the administration has done little since then to support Western expectations of broader rapprochement.

This is only one of many trends that has undermined Rouhani’s image as a moderate. Despite clear contests between his faction and the faction linked to the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the president has backed away from numerous promises of domestic reform and has demonstrated consistent alignment with hardline positions. This naturally calls into question the seriousness of his promise to investigate the corrupt that led to this week’s building collapses, or at least the likelihood of such an investigation affecting the IRGC’s hold on Iranian commerce, including building contracts.

In response to past scandals, the government has prosecuted individual officials from previous governments, sometimes even sentencing them to death. But in no prominent case has this led to a broader investigation into state institutions or their affiliates, despite widespread reporting that points to endemic corruption among IRGC members and others.