Tensions are flaring between the Iranian government and the Iranian people, who are criticizing minimal rescue efforts in the aftermath of tandem magnitude 6.3 and 6.4 earthquakes that rattled Iran’s northwest East Azerbaijan province Saturday.
“People are pessimistic about getting help from the Red Crescent, the Basij or any government groups. No one trusts the government to help us through this crisis,” said human rights activist and former political prisoner, Hamid, in an interview with Fox News. Hamid’s full name has been left out for his security.
The death toll is now 306, with 3,037 injured, the semi-official Fars news agency reported. The quake mostly affected women and children, who were home in the afternoon. An estimated 16,000 people are homeless.
The government has shown little compassion and has been slow in response and unreliable in allocating aid supplies, according to many.
“Political debates are a big part of this tragedy,” Hamid said. “Many are blaming the earthquakes on the regime’s nuclear testing,” referring to underground atomic testing that some believe may have created seismic waves.
Lawmakers from the quake-hit areas criticized the government for a shortage of tents and an overall inattentive reaction to the quake.
At least 12 villages were destroyed, and in 425 others, more than half to 80 percent of buildings were damaged. Locals are most fearful of the upcoming winter months, where the region experiences extreme low temperatures.
Hospitals in the vicinity are overcrowded with patients needing treatment, according to state TV reports.
“The people have been trying to get the dead out from under the rubble. It is an Azerbaijan belief that the dead should not be kept on the ground,” said journalist and blogger Saghi, who traveled to the quake site. “People were helping people. There was no sign of any other help.”
Time-sensitive announcements, such as calls for blood donors and details about rescue were spread through the region by social media. State TV and government-controlled press continued regular coverage of the Olympics, events in Syria and the commemoration of the holy month of Ramadan.
Masoud Pezeshkian, a parliament member from the province’s main city Tabriz, said locals helped transport patients to hospitals in their own cars. Many of the 8,000 tents sent out by the Red Crescent had not reached them, he said.
“This tragedy has affected everyone in our nation,” said Pegah, a political blogger. “At these times action and response time are vital, because they detract from the pain of the situation.”
Pegah writes about how the government announced that search and rescue were complete only 48 hours after the quakes, when there clearly were many still trapped under rubble and debris.
“Imagine how many more innocent lives could have been saved,” she says.
There were conflicting reports as to whether the Iranian government was accepting aid offers from many, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, UNICEF, Turkey, Taiwan, Singapore, Germany and other embassies in Tehran.
Monday, Iran's state-run IRNA news agency announced the country would now accept international aid, quoting Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi.
Before this announcement, Iran’s Red Crescent said that the government was not accepting international aid and that it could handle the disaster independently, spokesman Pouya Hajian told the semi-official ISNA news agency.
The government rejected an aid offer by the United States, claiming the gesture was not made in “good faith,” because of standing sanctions.
"Do us a favor and lift the sanctions," Hassan Ghadami, head of the Interior Ministry’s Crisis Management team, said to Iranian media.
The U.S. State Department lifted restrictions on specific sanctions against Iran to allow individuals and the government to send aid to quake victims.
Many Iranians saw the rejection of international assistance as a spiteful move on the government's part, seeking to further burden the people by passing on the severe consequences of economic sanctions brought against the regime.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was criticized for not offering public condolences until Sunday night, after many foreign representatives had already issued messages of sympathy and offered help. He had given other speeches during this time, but only focused on the Arab Spring while making no mention of the devastation.
Khamenei made a visit to the quake-hit areas Thursday.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left Monday morning for Saudi Arabia to attend a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, causing his already disenchanted Iranian constituents to question his leadership at home.
In an editorial titled "Mr. Ahmadinejad, where have you gone?" Asr-e Iran newspaper criticized his choice to abandon the country less than 48 hours after the quakes.
"In every other part of the world, the tradition is that when natural disasters happen, leaders will change their plans and visit the affected areas in order to show their compassion ... and observe rescue efforts," Asr-e Iran said.
“Most Iranians and Iranian-Americans don’t trust the regime with funds,” said Bahman Maalizdeh, founder of the North Carolina-based Norooz Foundation running a drive to send food items to the victims. “They know (the government) will send it to Syria or Hezbollah, and then they aren’t doing anything for their own people. We want to bypass the regime and reach the victims directly.”
Maalizadeh’s organization will be delivering goods to the Iranian people through the Turkish border. They will start by sending 15,000 bottles of water this week as a “test.” If there is looting, according to Maalizadeh, they will have to come up with a different approach. Otherwise, they will send a second truck with vital basic needs, such as food and milk.
Los Angeles-based 670 AM KIRN, the central radio station serving the largest expatriate community outside Iran, also warned those wanting to send donations to refrain from sending money for fear of government confiscation and instead suggested sending goods or monetary donations to organizations directly reaching the people.