Iran thanks the world for its help

By MODHER AMIN   |   Jan. 2, 2004 at 9:56 AM

TEHRAN, Jan. 1 (UPI) -- The 6.3-magnitude quake that jolted the Silk Road city of Bam in southeastern Iran last Friday brought the historic city and its 2,200-year-old mud-brick citadel, said to be the largest structure of its kind in the world, to nearly total destruction

The timing of the event -- just before dawn when most people were sleeping -- added to the calamity, causing entire families in an area of 200,000 to be trapped under the rubble.

The scope of the human tragedy in this city some 600 miles from Tehran was enormous: a death toll of at least 30,000, with an equal number injured and more than 100,000 made homeless.

However, what has made this natural disaster different from similar ones in Iran -- a country prone to major tremors -- has been not only the immense impact it has had on the Iranians but the outstanding reaction from the world community.

Not more than a few hours after the world came to know of the disaster swift pledges of aid arrived, even from nations with poor ties or no diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic.

Governments and aid organizations around the globe mobilized rescue teams, search dogs, emergency relief supplies and detection equipment. From Japan to the United States, from South Africa to South Korea, from Switzerland, Germany, Italy, China, the Czech Republic, Russia, Turkey, Armenia and even beyond, teams of rescuers rushed in to assist.

Muslim and Arab countries contributed greatly, with Iran's six Arab Persian Gulf neighbors alone pledging a generous sum of $400 million for the victims of the killer quake.

Over 120 foreign planes carrying humanitarian aid have landed in Iran from about four dozen countries.

International organizations such as the Red Cross, the United Nations and the European Commission have made their share of contributions.

U.S. military planes, which began arriving during the weekend, were the first to land in Iran since the 1981 hostage crisis.

The Belgian defense minister reviewed the rescue operations by his countrymen at the quake site, and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gol was to pay a short visit to the area on Friday.

"The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all of our needs," President Mohammad Khatami said last Friday when he announced three days of mourning, which are virtually still continuing nationwide.

The Iranian government waived visa requirements for foreign relief workers and opened the country's airspace to relief aid by international organizations and foreign countries.

As some analysts put it, the people of the world stood by each other to alleviate the pain of the catastrophe.

In a show of gratitude, survivors of the devastating earthquake, though overwhelmed with grief, thanked the foreign rescue teams by giving them small bouquets of roses and symbolic gifts such as pistachio nuts and Iranian engravings on the eve of the New Year -- an act that astonished the relief workers.

In his message to international rescue teams, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi welcomed the country's guests "who have rushed to Bam from different countries to help other human beings" and wished them a year ahead full of happiness and prosperity.

"Your presence in Bam in such a difficult situation, at a time when you were supposed to celebrate the New Year with your families at home proves that, despite all terrorism and violence, the jewels of humanity are still shining in the depth of the souls of all human beings," he said, according to Iranian Mehr News Agency.

Kharrazi stressed that the Iranian nation and government would never forget "their kind act of attending the scene of the disaster."

Iran celebrates its new year according to the old Zoroastrian tradition, on March 21, the first day of spring.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Iran's Disaster Management Headquarters thanked people around the world for their humanitarian assistance to the grief-stricken people of Bam.

President Khatami also did not fail to praise the world community for extending assistance to Iran.

"The outpouring of emotion throughout the world for the quake victims is indeed quite commendable," he told reporters on Tuesday, thanking all organizations involved in the relief aid on "a job well done."

Khatami, however, remained cautious about showing optimism at the recent statements by U.S. officials, sympathizing with the Iranian people.

"I do not think that Iran-U.S. relations will be resolved because of the quake," Khatami said. "There has to be a fundamental change in U.S. behavior towards the Iranian government and people."

But in an apparent move to appease Iran, the United States on Wednesday temporarily lifted some of the sanctions imposed on the Islamic republic for more than 20 years, enabling Americans as well as the two-million-strong Iranian community living in the U.S. to send cash and relief aid to Iran.

"The Iranian people deserve and need the assistance of the international community to help them recover from the catastrophic results of last week's earthquake," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said in a statement.

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, is issuing additional licenses to allow the export to Iran of restricted items such as transportation equipment, satellite telephones, and radio and personal computing items, said Duffy.

Immediate reactions from the Iranian officials have been encouraging, though.

While Kharrazi referred to the U.S initiative for a 90-day lifting of sanctions as a "positive" act, the influential former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said the move was a continuation of positive signals that, as he put it, Washington had been sending for several months over its relations with Tehran.

Asked about the possibility of resumption of talks between the two countries, Rafsanjani told reporters at Bam airport that "I am not sure but there are signals" from the United States.

Earlier over the week, Germany's ambassador to Tehran, Paul von Maltzahn, was quoted as having said that the international aid flowing into Iran might "bring diplomatic dividends" and turn into a means of encouraging the clerical regime in Tehran to bolster relations with the West, notably the United States.

U.S. officials, however, had already stressed that sending emergency aid to Iran was simply a response to the humanitarian disaster and that it reflected no change in policy toward Iran.

Washington accuses Tehran of sponsoring terrorism by supporting militant Palestinian and Lebanese groups and of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons under the cover of generating electricity.

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