Disaster Diplomacy is Dead! Long live Diplomacy!
By Dr. Ilan Kelman
Dr. Ilan Kelman is the Deputy Director, Cambridge University UK Centre for Risk In the Built Environment. For more on Disaster Diplomacy, see http://www.disasterdiplomacy.org
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.