The fracture between Iran’s autocratic government and its people is growing ever wider in the aftermath of the two earthquakes that hit northern Iran last weekend.

Tehran’s inadequate response is drawing strong criticism from theAzerbaijan region ofIran, where 16,000 people are now homeless and the official count is now 306 dead and more than 3,000 wounded.

While international leaders the world over have offered condolences and sympathy, the silence from their own government was deafening. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took off on a scheduled trip to Saudi Arabia, prompting the newspaper Asr-e Iran to editorialize: “Mr. Ahmadinejad, where have you gone?”

“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,” the editorial said.

“Ahmadinejad!” said one Radio Farda listener. “Now that people have lost their lives in [East] Azerbaijan Province, was it really worth it for you to leave the country and walk on a red carpet in Saudi Arabia and talk about Bashar al-Assad?”

While disaster relief in remote areas is always a difficult task, local Iranian politicians and earthquake victims have much to be aggrieved about:

  • Tehran declared rescue operations over just 48 hours after the 6.3 and 6.4 magnitude earthquakes, long before some remote villages could even be reached.
  • No national news outlets reported on the disaster, instead continuing with Olympic coverage and other scheduled programming. News of the disaster, blood drives, and relief operations traveled by social media and word of mouth.
  • Offers of international aid were initially rejected by Tehran, and there are conflicting reports as to whether aid from international organizations has been accepted. Aid from the U.S. government was pointedly turned down; an Iranian official commented that if the U.S. really wanted to help, sanctions (aimed at Iran’s nuclear program) should be lifted.
  • Private foreign aid organizations, such as those active among Iranian Americans, are hampered by concerns that aid will be siphoned off by the Iranian government and spent on support for terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Iranian earthquakes have again exposed the tensions within Iran caused by a political system with no regard for human rights and the lives or welfare of its citizens. It is not their own government that is struggling to reach the thousands of victims in need of food, medical attention, and shelter as fall and winter draws closer; it is the outside world. This lesson will not be lost on the Iranian people.