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Iran/USA Disaster Diplomacy

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Radix:  Radical Interpretations of and Solutions for Disasters

Iran/USA Disaster Diplomacy

  • 20 June 1990. An earthquake in Iran results in a private American relief plane landing with supplies. No diplomatic changes are apparent. See also:
    Redmond, A.D., S. Watson, and P. Nightingale. 1991 (June 22). "The South Manchester Accident Rescue Team and the earthquake in Iran, June 1990". BMJ, vol. 302, no. 6791, pp. 1521-1523.

  • 22 June 2002. An earthquake in northwest Iran kills several hundred people. BBC Coverage.

  • 2 July 2002. American aid arrives in Iran indirectly. President Bush states "Human suffering knows no political boundaries" and Tehran responds that the aid had "no political character". BBC Coverage. No diplomatic changes are apparent.

  • 26 December 2003. An earthquake kills more than 25,000 people in southeast Iran, with the destruction centred on the city of Bam. BBC Coverage and Radix Coverage. In the following days, the USA offers aid which Iran accepts. A media frenzy related to disaster diplomacy or earthquake diplomacy ensues.

  • 30 December 2003. Nick Cater writes for Alertnet "When disaster opens the door to dialogue":

             The December 26 earthquake in the southern Iranian city of Bam is proving a major opportunity for the growing phenomenon of disaster diplomacy, in which governments with strained relations use crises to improve communications.
             Natural hazards, from earthquakes to floods or drought, have often been political occasions rather than merely seismic, hydrological or meteorological events, either putting governments under pressure if they fail to respond well or creating new ways for icy international relations to be improved.
             Earthquakes in particular have helped bring down rulers (Nicaragua 1972), accelerated political liberalisation (Armenia 1988) and opened communication channels (Greece and Turkey 1999). This may be partly due to the fact that earthquakes are extremely newsworthy and televisual disasters that attract public interest and demands for action.
             Such issues are highlighted on the disaster diplomacy academic website, which investigates and analyses crisis-related dialogue from Cuba to Sudan, even embracing such risks to the Earth as asteroids and meteorites.
             The Bam emergency has already prompted around 40 countries to offer assistance, from Russia, Italy, France, Turkey and Jordan to the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Britain.
             On the list is the United States, which broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after the Islamic revolution and the Tehran embassy hostage crisis more than 20 years ago.
             In 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush declared Iran part of the "axis of evil" he said was aiding extremist violence, along with Iraq and North Korea. Yet two U.S. aircraft have already delivered medical supplies and staff to assist the relief effort.
             Egypt, another country without diplomatic ties to Iran, has also sent relief aid, while President Hosni Mubarak extended his condolences to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and Culture Minister Faruq Hosni offered Egypt's help to restore Bam's ancient citadel, destroyed in the earthquake.
             The U.S. move has prompted headlines along the lines of "Iranian earthquake may bury the idea of the axis of evil" and "U.S. relations with Tehran begin to thaw in the aftermath of disaster".
             The United States has responded to Iranian needs before, supplying aid for the far smaller earthquake in 2002 near Qazvin in northern Iran, although on that occasion supplies were delivered by UNICEF in a low-key operation.
             Disaster diplomacy often allows countries that are caught in long-standing disputes or confrontations to use the excuse of the crisis to open discussions without being perceived as weak, as happened between Pakistan and India after the Gujarat earthquake in 2001.
              Even when two states are normally hostile to each other, diplomatic efforts may go down well with certain domestic political audiences, such as the many Iranians now living in America.
             Israel has made a significant effort to use disaster diplomacy to improve its often pariah status through international relief efforts and by sending search and rescue teams.
             In recent years it has been active in dozens of crises, including disasters in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Russia and Turkey, although after Bam, Iran insisted it would take aid from any country except Israel.
             Factional issues can also be important in disaster diplomacy, such as the way moderates wanting more openness in Iran, including President Khatami, may use the disaster to highlight the international support as a way of changing internal political opinions.
             Some U.S. commentators have noted that direct contact with Iran came from the State Department of Colin Powell rather than the Bush White House, where neo-conservative hawks are believed to see Tehran as the next target after Baghdad for the threat or use of military force.
             While disaster diplomacy can help cut through bureaucracy to speed up relief and then offer channels for discussing how to adapt existing rules for international relief efforts – on visas, importing supplies or using communications -- it should also ring warning bells for humanitarian agencies.
             The short-term opportunism of disaster diplomacy can be a worry, since agency commitments to maintain independence, neutrality and impartiality, especially in terms of focusing on priority needs, may be put under pressure by political expediency.
             Aid agencies might be advised to monitor the political rhetoric of recent days so that they can remind their government paymasters in months to come when financial support for reconstruction operations in Bam will need to be sustained, including the building of earthquake-resistant homes, schools and health centres.

  • 2 January 2004. Ilan Kelman writes for Scoop: "Will USA-Iran Disaster Diplomacy Have Longevity?":

             Comments from the American government on dialogue with Iran are a clear example of disaster diplomacy, where a natural disaster has potentially brought enemy states together. Whether or not the earthquake will lead to concrete rapprochement is uncertain, but it is dangerous to assume that it will.
             In previous disaster diplomacy cases, such as Greece-Turkey after the 1999 earthquakes and India-Pakistan after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, the disaster was a catalyst, not a creator, of diplomacy. For Greece-Turkey, diplomatic initiatives had been in place before the earthquake. For India-Pakistan, a six-month honeymoon ended catastrophically and war nearly occurred later that year [My mistake; this phrase should have read "war nearly occurred within a year"], although tentative diplomatic steps [which became solid and impressive on the day this article was published] have recently been taken--in the absence of any disaster.
             Iran-USA has precedents for disaster diplomacy: earthquakes in 1990 when a private American relief airplane landed and in July 2002 when Bush stated that "Human suffering knows no political boundaries" and Tehran responded that the aid had "no political character". Neither case appears to have advanced diplomatic efforts.
             Therefore, although changes can occur rapidly, caution should be exercised before immediately assuming that Washington and Tehran will patch up their differences and live happily ever after. Furthermore, any earthquake-related diplomatic efforts might be building on recent successes; for example, Iran allowing the UN to inspect its nuclear facilities. Colin Powell's statements could be the public face of previously private discussions.
             Instead of pushing for immediate, rushed diplomatic changes resulting from the earthquake, the USA and Iran should perhaps use the situation as an opening; an opportunity to find common ground, to start understanding each other, and to keep dialogue going. Then, without the glare of the media spotlight or the impetus from humanitarian expediency, sensible, well thought-out diplomatic changes could be successfully phased in.
             If that does happen, it is sad that it took a disaster to jump-start the diplomacy. We must learn to seek and accept peace before we are forced to do so by a tragedy.

  • 3 January 2004. Paul Tsoundarou comments:

             The Bam Earthquake is a calamity which should encourage a policy shift in the United States and Europe. As seen by the Greece/Turkey case study, the Iranian earthquake in Bam, has resulted in extraordinary loss of life, and the world’s superpower should not sit idle to such misery.
             Indications are that the United States will assist considerably to the aid effort, which is pouring into the ancient city from both local and foreign sources. That Iran's foe, the United States, is amongst those giving assistance, is an encouraging sign. Will this lead to a political rapproachment? Both the Bush Administration and the Khatami government would have us believe it is all status-quo. Whether this is true or not, positive results can be forged from the misery of thousands, where Iran, an important country of over 60 million, can be engaged in dialogue more effectively with its western rivals as a partial result of the disaster.
             If increased dialogue is achieved short term, it could very well be another success in the ongoing significance of 'disaster diplomacy', therefore, legitimising even further its study and formulation as a legitimate and sucessful process in international relations.

  • 11 January 2004. Ilan Kelman writes for Newsday: "One Earthquake Won't Seal a U.S.-Iran Bond":

             Since the United States responded in late December to the devastating earthquake in southeast Iran with aid workers and temporary suspension of some economic sanctions, relations between Iran's "Great Satan" and the member of George W. Bush's "axis of evil" appear to be friendlier than at any time during the past quarter century.
             Secretary of State Colin Powell's remark on Dec. 30 - "We should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future" - has led some to believe that the U.S. government's hard line is softening because of the earthquake.
             If that happened, it would be a classic case of "disaster diplomacy," where tragedy brings enemy countries together. But Iran's rejection of the Bush administration's offer to send a delegation including Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) to the region suggests that, while the earthquake could be directly linked to future rapprochement, it is dangerous to assume that it inevitably will.
             Historically, disaster has been a catalyst, but not a creator, of diplomacy. Disasters have opened doors but failed to achieve long-term results. Earthquakes especially illustrate this point.
             In 1999, a rapid thaw in Greek-Turkish relations followed deadly earthquakes in both countries. But diplomatic initiatives had been in place already. The tragedies thrust this slow process into the spotlight, and suddenly the media and the public were demanding faster results than the governments were ready to provide. In the long term, Greek-Turkish diplomacy might have been damaged by the disasters. Certainly the earthquakes did not resolve Greek-Turkish differences in the Aegean or Cyprus.
             Positively, though, the rapprochement has held up. When an earthquake killed at least 100 people in southeast Turkey last May, Greece offered help. Little commentary resulted, implying that such aid is now an expected and standard practice with little influence on diplomacy.
             India and Pakistan have had similar experience. In January 2001, an earthquake devastated Gujarat, killing approximately 25,000. Pakistan offered assistance, and this culminated in a summit between the countries' two leaders in July. But over the next year, the two men exchanged bitter insults and the countries nearly went to war.
             Ever since, in the absence of earthquakes, relations have gone through various freeze-thaw cycles. It took no disaster, but political pressures, for the two nations to announce last week that they would begin formal peace talks in February.
             Events, changes and attitudes can easily eclipse the political impact of an earthquake. The same has occurred in a number of other disasters, including famine in North Korea and drought in southern Africa.
             In the case of America and Iran, precedents exist for disaster diplomacy that failed to produce lasting consequences. After an earthquake in Iran in 1990, a private American relief airplane landed there. In June 2002, an earthquake killed several hundred in northern Iran, and American aid was delivered through the United Nations. President Bush stated that "human suffering knows no political boundaries" and Tehran responded that the aid had "no political character."
             With the recent earthquake, Powell has placed potential rapprochement in the context of other events. He has welcomed Iran's agreement to permit UN inspections of nuclear energy facilities along with moves toward reconciliation with Egypt and Jordan, both of whom contributed earthquake relief.
             In October, two months before the earthquake, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "We are prepared to engage in limited discussions with the government of Iran . . . as appropriate." He emphasized Bush's and Powell's mid-October statements downplaying the possibility of using force against Iran. U.S. earthquake aid was likely made possible by the prior diplomacy rather than the shock of the tragedy.
             Iran has a similar view. President Mohammad Khatami commented, "Humanitarian issues should not be intertwined with deep and chronic political problems."
             With a U.S. presidential election coming in November, and parliamentary elections in Iran next month, considerations far beyond an earthquake are at work.

  • 13 January 2004. Ilan Kelman writes for Scoop: "Disaster Diplomacy is Dead! Long live Disaster Diplomacy!":

             Disaster diplomacy between Iran and the USA appears to be finished--at least, for the moment. Following the devastating earthquake in Bam in southeast Iran on 26 December 2003, American relief teams landed in George W. Bush's "axis of evil". Media interpretations suggested that White House policy was softening.
             Subsequently, Bush made it clear that his policy towards Iran was not altered. Meanwhile, Iran rejected the White House's offer to send a high-level delegation. Are Tehran and Washington backtracking, confused, or disingenuous? The answer is none. Relative consistency has been displayed throughout.
             As the world responded to the earthquake, American Secretary of State Colin Powell on 30 December 2003 said simply "we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future". That cautious remark was seized by the media as evidence of disaster diplomacy, yet it had little substance. It also said little which was new.
             On 28 October 2003, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the topic of Iran. He commented "we are prepared to engage in limited discussions with the government of Iran about areas of mutual interest, as appropriate". He reiterated remarks by Bush and Powell in previous weeks which had downplayed the possibility of using force against Iran.
             Iran similarly foresaw, or desired, no disaster-induced political changes. Iran's U.N. envoy Javad Zarif said "We appreciate the importance of the humanitarian gesture...the United States said this is for humanitarian purposes, and that is how we have taken it". Iran's President Mohammad Khatami echoed these sentiments: "Humanitarian issues should not be intertwined with deep and chronic political problems. If we see a change both in the tone and behavior of the U.S. administration, then a new situation will develop in our relations."
             Furthermore, after the earthquake, Iran immediately declared its refusal to accept Israeli aid, yet Israeli humanitarian relief operations have often been used for attempted disaster diplomacy. Iran's leadership also faces parliamentary elections in February 2004 and could be concerned about the supposed weakness of dealing with their American devil. Bush, facing 2004 elections too, might be worried about appearing to yield concessions to a perceived enemy. Considerations far beyond a mere earthquake disaster, irrespective of tens of thousands of bodies, impact political machinations.
             Nevertheless, funeral proceedings for Iranian-American disaster diplomacy would be premature. Between Iran and the U.S.A., the earthquake aid opens new doors for communication, builds trust and goodwill, increases mutual understanding, and could enhance international diplomatic processes far beyond Iran-U.S.A. bilateral relations. Seeing these events as an opportunity to find common ground and to support dialogue and understanding would be a positive and worthwhile disaster diplomacy outcome.
             Connections established between workers on the ground and perceived improvements in political relationships could spill over later. Cultural exchanges, reciprocal visits, training and technology exchanges, and similar activities could occur whether the politicians want them or not. Pressure could then appear on the governments from the population to stop the petty bullying and needless political wrangling.
             And if a major catastrophe were to hit the USA., would Iran immediately offer condolences? Lesser developed countries rarely offer aid to a disaster-stricken USA, so an offer from Iran might be seen as demeaning or insulting. A Machiavellian Iranian leader with a sense of humour might do so.
             Disaster diplomacy is a complex process and it can cause significant changes. We must continue to seek ways of using it positively and properly without becoming mired in overblown expectations or unrealistic endeavours forcing it to work against all odds--and realities. The best result, though, would always be diplomacy without a disaster.

  • April 2004. Maaike Warnaar writes Bam: American relief and the Future of the Iranian-American relationship (262 kb in Word).

  • 22 February 2005 An earthquake hits southern Iran killing over 600 people. The U.S.A. offered aid which was declined. Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, noted that "Iran did not refuse the help but said we can handle it domestically". Aid from Algeria, Australia, China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and several international organisations was accepted, somewhat refuting that statement. Although self-sufficiency reduces disaster diplomacy potential, it is nonetheless the best form of response, particularly given that disaster diplomacy has so far rarely produced obvious long-term impacts. More subtle disaster diplomacy outcomes, particularly at the individual-to-individual level rather than at the government-to-government level, are feasible, but such outcomes could occur even when a country appropriately handles a disaster using internal resources.

  • Kelman (2007) describes different purposes behind Iran/USA disaster diplomacy.

  • Ireni-Saban, L. 2019. "Diplomacy in Times of Disaster: Management through Reputational Capital". Journal of Management Policy and Practice, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 99-114.

Despite all the prospects and opportunities for Iran-U.S.A. disaster diplomacy, none have manifested. Instead, the two countries continue to have major political differences, in addition to Iran's difficulties with many other countries in the region. So far, no disaster-related activities have been able to lessen or provide a pathway for resolving the major concerns that other countries have with some of Iran's activities.

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