Massive Quake Rocks Iran

When a deadly earthquake struck northwestern Iran, killing some forty thousand people and destroying hundreds of towns and villages, nations around the world rushed to provide aid, even though Iran’s strained relations with some governments made delivering such aid difficult.

Summary of Event

Iran is no stranger to devastating earthquakes; such disasters have occurred far back into the country’s history, and a large number took place during the twentieth century. In 1981, the town of Golbaf was destroyed by a quake that killed more than one thousand persons. In February, 1997, about one thousand lives were claimed by an earthquake in northwestern Iran, only to be followed three months later by the loss of more than fifteen hundred lives in a quake in an area of eastern Iran. Rudbar-Tarom earthquake[Rudbar Tarom earthquake]
[kw]Massive Quake Rocks Iran (June 21, 1990)
[kw]Quake Rocks Iran, Massive (June 21, 1990)
[kw]Iran, Massive Quake Rocks (June 21, 1990)
Rudbar-Tarom earthquake[Rudbar Tarom earthquake]
[g]Middle East;June 21, 1990: Massive Quake Rocks Iran[07760]
[g]Iran;June 21, 1990: Massive Quake Rocks Iran[07760]
[c]Disasters;June 21, 1990: Massive Quake Rocks Iran[07760]
Rafsanjani, Hashemi

The worst earthquake in Iran since one in 1978 that claimed twenty-five thousand lives occurred in the same region, northwest Iran near the Caspian Sea, at 12:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 21, 1990 (about 5:00 p.m. eastern daylight time on Wednesday, June 20, in the United States). The quake registered magnitudes of 7.3 and 7.7, respectively, on the Richter scale in Iran and the United States. It lasted for more than a minute and struck an area of some forty thousand square miles that was populated by Azerbaijani Turks, Gīlānis, Mazandaranis, Kurds, and Persians. The epicenter was identified as being under the Caspian Sea, near the Soviet city of Länkärän. Even in the Iranian capital of Tehran, about 250 miles to the east, there were reports of windows blown out of some buildings.

In the days immediately following the disaster, the earthquake’s toll of lives was placed at about twenty-five thousand, with tens of thousands more injured. It became clear that these numbers would rise significantly as relief teams moved in to search for the dead and wounded. The quake had brought down a mountain, destroying hundreds of towns and villages. Aftershocks, mudslides, and flooding precipitated by damaged dams hampered rescue efforts. In addition to the dead and the injured, more than half a million people were rendered homeless.

The areas worst affected were the coastal province of Gīlān and the inland province of Zanjān. The region, considered the “breadbasket” of Iran, had a population of about four million. In Rudbar, 90 percent of the town and the surrounding area was leveled; 70 percent of the buildings in the towns of Manjil and Loushan collapsed. According to initial reports, at least fifteen hundred persons were killed and three thousand were injured in Taram-e Oleya in the province of Zanjān. All of the houses in Ab-bar and Bouin were destroyed, and virtually every resident in these towns was killed or injured. More than seven hundred villages were razed to the ground, and as many as one hundred villages were without drinking water or electricity and were cut off from help. Planes and helicopters were made available to take at least some of the wounded to Tehran. The Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, sent in large supplies of tents, blankets, and food, but relief workers had difficulty reaching some rural areas to distribute the supplies.

As days passed by, the death toll rose to about forty thousand, making the Rudbar-Tarom earthquake the deadliest in Iran up to that time. The death toll might have been even higher had it not been for the fact that when the quake hit, many residents who ordinarily would have already retired for the night were not in bed because they had stayed up to watch the World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Scotland on television. Also, in a number of rural areas, villagers often slept out in the open, away from their houses, on the hot summer nights.

At an emergency meeting of the Iranian cabinet, a special earthquake office was set up, and the government announced that it would accept aid from any source, including countries (except Israel and South Africa) that did not have diplomatic relations with Iran. A three-day period of national mourning was declared.

In addition to messages of sympathy, many nations sent equipment, food, and other supplies to Iran, including the United States, France, Iraq, Switzerland, and Japan. The message from the United States offering condolence as well as humanitarian assistance was delivered by another, unidentified, country, because Iran did not have diplomatic relations with the United States. The European community pledged $1.2 million in addition to other nonmonetary assistance.

By June 25, some religious fundamentalist groups in Iran began urging President Hashemi Rafsanjani to reject foreign helpers, especially Americans. Some French doctors later reported that they had been ordered out of some of the worst-hit areas of the country, where the villagers were pleading for medical help. Editorials in major Iranian newspapers and some government officials took a conciliatory approach, but others accused some of the governments that had sent aid to Iran of doing so to exploit the situation for political purposes. Some pointed out that American earthquake aid would not end years of hostility between the two countries. Rafsanjani himself took a more pragmatic approach, showing gratitude for aid from all groups, with or without diplomatic relations, and Western diplomats in Tehran praised the people of Iran for their admirable attempt to put aside political differences for the good of the country.

As hope began to wane for many survivors in the wake of new tremors, some Islamic clerics who had traveled to the quake region from Tehran moved among the people, promising survivors greater glory for their struggle. One handed out small brochures listing the rewards to be gained from martyrdom. With the large number of dead, Iran’s ayatollahs (religious leaders) agreed that, because of the emergency situation, corpses could be buried in mass graves if it was impossible to observe Islamic burial rules.

In the aftermath of the terrible devastation in the area, survivors in at least one town, Rasht, were quoted as saying that there had been unnecessary deaths; they blamed greed, shoddy construction, and governmental indifference for the enormous loss of life. One civil engineer, whose sister and nephews were killed in the earthquake, reflected this feeling; he asserted that, in order to save money and make a larger profit when the seven-story apartment building in which his relatives had lived was sold, builders had used far too little steel in the construction.


Aside from the loss of life, the monetary value of the damage caused by the Rudbar-Tarom earthquake climbed to an estimated $7.2 billion, costing Iran about 7.2 percent of its gross national product. The quake resulted in long-term economic disruption of at least three large provinces, as Iran needed to resettle persons from at least three large cities and more than seven hundred villages. Rebuilding the structures lost while meeting acceptable construction standards would take decades and cost the country a considerable portion of its national budget.

Of all the earthquakes suffered by Iran over its long history, the Rudbar-Tarom quake of 1990 exacted the greatest toll up to that time in terms of loss of life and physical destruction, highlighting the need for increased earthquake education among the Iranian people. This need has been difficult to address in part because of the religious view that such disasters are the will of God and acceptance of such events is virtuous.

The Iranian earthquake of 1990 was also significant in that it showed the extent to which the international community can pull together in times of crisis. Countries that were experiencing strained relationships with Iran were willing not only to pledge large amounts of monetary assistance but also to send hundreds of tons of equipment, medicine, and food as well people to provide hands-on assistance to victims of this horrendous disaster. Rudbar-Tarom earthquake[Rudbar Tarom earthquake]

Further Reading

  • Berberian, M., et al. “The Rudbar-Tarom Earthquake of 20 June 1990 in NW Persia: Preliminary Field and Seismological Observations, and Its Tectonic Significance.” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 82 (August, 1992):1726-1755. Provides a technical explanation of the quake and reveals that the system of surface faults on which it occurred had not been deemed active before, leading to the conclusion that there is a relatively long return period for earthquakes of this type.
  • Bolt, Bruce A. Earthquakes. 5th ed. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 2003. Excellent primer on earthquakes for the nonscientist. Includes information on plate tectonics, earthquake magnitude and measurement, and faults.
  • Gao, Liping, Terry C. Wallace, and James Jackson. “Aftershocks of the June 1990 Rudbar-Tarom Earthquake: Evidence for Slip Partitioning.” Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union 72 (Fall, 1991). Technical article analyzes the nature of the earthquake mechanism and concludes that the rupture was of a complex type, with at least three subevents occurring within the first twenty seconds. Gives examples of the two types of aftershocks involved.
  • Hough, Susan Elizabeth. Earthshaking Science: What We Know (and Don’t Know) About Earthquakes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Good source of basic information about earthquakes. Includes suggestions for further reading and index.
  • McFadden, Robert D. “Earthquake Kills Thousands in Wide Region of Iran.” The New York Times, June 23, 1990, p. A10. An example of the coverage of the quake in the American press.
  • Shenan, Philip. “Iran Debates Accepting Quake Relief from Enemies.” The New York Times, June 27, 1990, p. A3. Reports on the problems with rescue and relief efforts and the possibility that Iran might refuse offers of help from some nations.

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