Sprawling across hill and valley in a vast jumble of mid- and high-rise concrete apartment blocks set against the majestic Elburz Mountains, this city of 14 million people covers several hundred square miles and looks nothing if not solid.
Yet Tehran could be as ephemeral as the melting mountain snows that tumble through its gurgling gutters and dissipate in the hot plains below, warns Bahram Akasheh, the country’s top seismologist. And if his direst forecasts are accurate, millions of people could be killed.
From his office at Tehran University’s Institute of Geophysics, Akasheh has been sounding jeremiads about the future of Iran’s capital, and has even spoken about his concern to President Hashemi Rafsanjani. To his frustration, few people are taking his suggestions seriously.
“Every day the danger from an earthquake is getting bigger and bigger as more people come from the rural areas to the city,” Akasheh said. “Every day I see new houses and new high-rise buildings going up in the direction of the mountains. Who gives the permission to build such high-rises, exactly on the most fractured zone?”
Iranians know all about the devastating effects of earthquakes. In the last three decades alone, more than 100,000 people have been killed in this country in earthquakes, and a major quake in eastern Iran just last month killed more than 1,400 people and left 10,000 homeless.
Rafsanjani has cited that quake, and one in 1990 northwest of Tehran that killed more than 40,000 people, as the two lowest points of his eight years in office (his term ends in August).
Akasheh believes that a magnitude-7.9 earthquake will strike Tehran. A powerful temblor struck the same area 160 years ago, killing thousands.
Today, the city is unprepared for such an event and would be obliterated in a matter of seconds, with devastating loss of life, Akasheh said. “I know the place. I know the magnitude. But I do not know the time.”
But after all the other momentous occurrences of recent Iranian history--the 1979 revolution, the confrontation with the United States that began that same year over the U.S. hostages, the devastating eight-year war with Iraq--earthquake precautions are not uppermost in most people’s minds.
A sampling of opinion in this capital reveals a studied nonchalance, or perhaps denial, about the danger.
“I am not afraid at all, because I do not believe it,” said Sadege Semei, a 52-year-old publisher.
“I can’t do anything, and I don’t want to think about it,” said Amiri Farhad, a 29-year-old accountant. “Where can I go? I live here. My job is here, and I think that when your time has come, you leave the world, and you can’t do anything about it.”
Tehran’s array of seismographs has recorded about 2,000 small earthquakes, nearly two a day, in the past three years. The American-made sensors are among the best in the world, Akasheh said, left over from when the United States used them to monitor underground nuclear tests by the former Soviet Union.
After 1990, Iranian authorities decreed new construction in Tehran would have to meet tough seismic standards. But Akasheh estimates that 99% of the buildings were built before 1990 and are inadequate.
Akasheh has urged the government to move the capital to the more central city of Isfahan or another locale, but has been told the country cannot afford it. Short of that, he thinks a shadow government should be established outside the capital, ready to take over if the government in Tehran is wiped out.
“Our forecast is that one day, we will have no more Tehran,” he said.