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Iran quakes highlight aid confusion

Sanctions, lost donations cause uncertainty

A pair of earthquakes that devastated areas of northern Iran on the weekend have prompted urgent calls for aid, but advocates say sanctions and past missteps have left some donors unsure how to get help to those in need.

The 6.3-and 6.4-magnitude quakes hit Iran's northwest region Saturday. On Tuesday, the death toll stood at 306 people, with more than 3,000 reported injured. The region's largest city, Tabriz, was relatively unscathed, but villages in the mountainous area were hard hit, as old buildings collapsed and roads were destroyed in the upheaval.

"They are totally isolated because of not having enough roads and transportation and no telephone," said Nassreen Filsoof, president of the North Shore-based Iranian Canadian Foundation. "There is no electricity; there is no water; there is no food."

Mahshid Seifi, a director with the ICF who has travelled in the region and has relatives in Tabriz, said the area was "just ready to be destroyed."

"The buildings are really old . . . with really poor construction," said Seifi.

For several days, the Iranian government refused offers of international aid, sending back a Red Crescent team that arrived from Turkey on Monday, according to news agencies. But on Tuesday, the authorities relented, saying they would accept help.

Filsoof said her organization was accepting donations and planned to pass them on to the Canadian Red Cross, but first wanted to speak to the aid organization to make sure the money would get to the quake victims.

"In the previous earthquake. . . in the historic city of Bam in 2003, a lot of people gave materials and different items that they needed, but it never reached the people," said Filsoof.

Canada's sanctions against Iran are also causing confusion, with potential donors unsure of what they can legally send. On Tuesday, the Iranian Canadian Congress asked for clarification from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

"There's a general sense of confusion in the community," said Kaveh Shahrooz, vice president of the Iranian Canadian Congress.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that Americans would be able to donate food and medicine to the disaster victims without fear of prosecution for violating the U.S.'s economic sanctions against Iran. Minister Baird has yet to respond to the ICC's request.

Shahrooz said Iran's acceptance of international help now opens up the options for donors.

"Up until today, we had been advising people to donate to the Red Cross, because the Red Cross works quite closely with the Red Crescent," he said. "Now that outside aid can go to Iran, we will look at various options. I'm fairly confident that the Red Cross is still a great organization to donate to."

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