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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.

By Daniel NismanOp-ed contributor / May 15, 2013

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran's chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, leave a podium in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Feb. 26. Ms. Ashton and Mr. Jalili meet in Istanbul today to work toward an agreement on Iran's nuclear program. Op-ed contributor Daniel Nisman writes: '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.'

Stanislav Filippov/AP/File

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In the past half-century, earthquakes have directly contributed to the overthrow of at least two authoritarian regimes in Nicaragua and Iran. By exposing government corruption and incompetency, earthquakes wield the ability to inflict political damage to the world’s most ironclad regimes with a level of potency matched only by their unpredictability.

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As EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili meet in Turkey today to continue working toward an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranian leadership should heed history’s warning: No nuclear program can save a regime from a toppling earthquake.

In 1972, a powerful earthquake devastated Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, setting off a chain reaction of public discontent that eventually led to the ousting of the notoriously corrupt Somoza dynasty. For the Nicaraguan people, President Somoza’s squandering of international emergency aid following the earthquake was the last straw in a series of blatantly corrupt moves that showed little regard for their wellbeing.

The second instance occurred in September 1978 in Iran, when a 7.7 magnitude earthquake killed more than 26,000 near the eastern city of Tabas. The dismal response of the equally corrupt shah pushed Iran’s already bubbling popular uprising to a boiling point, one month after the CIA made its historically erroneous assessment that the country was “not in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation.”

As the Somozas and the shah can attest from their resting place in history’s dustbin, earthquakes are much more than nature’s most destructive physical force.

Since the ayatollahs took power in 1979, more than 78,000 Iranians have died in hundreds of powerful earthquakes. The vast majority of those killed were crushed by their own poorly constructed homes, with earthquakes flattening entire villages in Iran’s neglected and impoverished rural areas in several instances.

Although the entirety of Iran’s territory sits on one of the most seismically active areas in the world, it ranks far lower than countries like Japan, Chile, and Turkey in terms of average earthquake magnitude and frequency.

And yet, the scale in which seismic events translate into humanitarian and economic disasters in Iran is staggering. This is due primarily to the wanton mismanagement and underfunding of the government’s disaster relief programs and earthquake preparedness measures, which in other nations have a proven ability to save countless lives.

While Iran’s seismic reality cannot be altered, the region’s political and economic tectonic plates are shifting against the ayatollahs’ favor. The potential damage – both political and physical – of another powerful earthquake will only multiply as Iran’s economy deteriorates and the government’s budget buckles.

Currently an estimated 2 percent of the country’s expenditure is devoted to disaster relief. This amount will be further expected to dwindle under the weight of international sanctions, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s irresponsible subsidy policies, and untold corruption throughout Iran’s ruling class. These factors have already caused tremors of public discontent among the middle class.

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