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HARD TO SUMMON PITY FOR AYATOLLAH’S PEOPLE

SHARE HARD TO SUMMON PITY FOR AYATOLLAH’S PEOPLE

At one point last week, the death toll in the Iranian earthquake was put at 70,000. Now 50,000 is the best estimate.

But think about that for a moment: 50,000 is still more than were killed during nine years of civil war in Nicaragua; more than all the Americans killed in all the earthquakes, hurricanes and floods of the 20th century.If, despite those grim statistics, you haven't been particularly touched by this tragedy, you're not alone. Private American donations to Iran's relief effort have amounted to less than the annual salary of one good Hollywood divorce lawyer.

No sophisticated analysis is required to understand this absence of compassion in the face of one of the great disasters of modern times.

Iran's rulers brought it upon their country - through their relentless diatribes against America, their sponsorship of terrorism and hostage-taking and their brutal oppression of Iran's minorities.

Even after the quake struck and with Iranians still trapped under the rubble, the theocrats continued to incite outrage.

Aid from Washington, they announced, would be accepted only if it was laundered through international organizations. Assistance from Israel and South Africa would not be welcome at all. And Western cor-respondents arriving in Tehran were greeted by signs reading "Down with America."

The ayatollahs also bear some culpability for the spectacularly high death count. Yes, earthquakes are natural disasters. But most fatalities occur not because the Earth opens up and swallows people but because buildings fall down on top of people.

Northern Iran has long been an earthquake danger zone. A responsible leadership would have made it a priority to build houses that do not become death traps when the first tremors hit.

Instead, construction in the years since the revolution has been shoddier than ever while the resources of the Islamic Republic of Iran were spent on holy wars against Iraq and Israel, a vendetta against writer Salman Rushdie and a campaign to force women to cover up.

Still, maddening as all this may be, is it fair to blame the earthquake victims, most of whom are powerless peasants and helpless children?

Of course not. And intellectually you and I know that. But it's not from the intellect that compassion springs.

Iran's revolution has been against the West in general and America in particular. To radical Shi'ite Moslems, Western culture is a seductress, celebrating materialism while diminishing piety, elevating humanism above spiritualism and refusing to distinguish between true and false religions. Khomeini had a phrase for it: the Great Satan.

I spent a few days traveling in northern Iran, through the region hit by the recent quakes. The rural people tended to be more tolerant than the urban radicals. But they, too, had been led to believe terrible things about us.

One farmer told me he despised Americans because they had caused a plague of worms to fall from the skies and consume his crops.

Looking at the pictures of destruction last week, I couldn't help but wonder if that farmer is alive today. And, if so, does he blame America for shaking his Earth so violently?