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Opinion

What could finally topple Iran's regime? Earthquakes.

Poor government response to earthquakes in Iran exposes the regime's corruption and incompetence. As the EU's Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Saeed Jalili meet in Turkey today, Tehran should heed history’s warning: No nuclear program can save a regime from a toppling earthquake.

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Several recent earthquakes have further shaken public confidence in the government. In August 2012, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Iran’s rural northeastern provinces near the city of Tabriz, killing more than 350 and leaving 16,000 homeless. Local residents and response teams criticized the government’s delayed response, shortage of tents and medicine, and inability to reach many outlying villages altogether.

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Mr. Ahmadinejad’s decision not to cancel a planned trip to Saudi Arabia three days after the Tabriz earthquake sparked outrage nationwide, while opening up the floor for infighting with his political opponents. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini was also the subject of rare criticism, after he only offered his condolences 30 hours after the quake struck. State media was accused of outright ignoring the disaster, choosing instead to cover the ongoing Olympic games, comedy shows, and “Western plots” in Syria.

this year, on April 10, a 6.3 earthquake struck about 100 miles south of the Bushehr nuclear reactor. This was just four days after negotiations with the P5+1 world powers in Kazakhstan ended with an Iranian refusal of the most comprehensive incentives package offered by the West to date. The offer was conditional on Iran halting uranium enrichment.

The world was able to breathe a sigh of relief after it became apparent that the quake would not cause a Fukushima-replay in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, although its symbolism cannot be ignored. The quake had destroyed several dilapidated villages and killed dozens while the nearby reactor remained unharmed – essentially turning Bushehr into an icon of the government’s misplaced aspirations to become a nuclear power at the cost of its citizens’ wellbeing. 

Six days later on April 16, an even more powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck near the Iran-Pakistan border. Government officials initially claimed that the death toll would be “in the hundreds,” but damage to Iranian areas was ultimately minimal. While the government escaped another potentially embarrassing disaster, one can only imagine the repercussions had this earthquake had an epicenter in Tehran or Esfahan

As they brace for the impact of particularly contentious presidential elections in June, Iran’s ayatollahs have made every effort to solidify their rule by portraying strength internally and defiance outwardly. Prospects for a solution to the nuclear issue have been decidedly pushed back until after the elections, while the Revolutionary Guard appears poised to swiftly crack down on any political mobilization in Tehran or elsewhere.

The Iranian regime may be confident in its ability to outmaneuver its political and military opponents, but it cannot defeat the powerful forces of nature beneath its feet. Whether it be armed conflict, economic prosperity, or natural disasters, history has shown that the legitimacy of any government rests primarily on its ability to provide security for its people.

Until Iran’s leadership heeds this reality, it may just be a few earthquakes away from crumbling.

Daniel Nisman is the Middle East section intelligence director at Max Security Solutions, a geo-political and security risk consulting firm.

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