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Trouble brewing in Iranian Balochistan

Dr. Abdulla Al-Madani
Monday 26 February 2007

Unlike Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan, which has been receiving extensive media coverage as a result of its uprising against the central government in recent years, Iran’s vast but sparsely populated southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan has long been out of media glare. This, however, seems to be changing now with an escalating insurgency led by an obscure Baloch militant organization called Jundollah (Soldiers of God).

Given the absence of accurate demographic data on Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities, it is hard to know the precise number of Iranian Balochis. According to an estimate, there are some 10-15 million Balochis residing in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan with tribal and family lines traversing all three countries. Iran’s Baloch population may at best be estimated at 4 million. Both Iran and Pakistan have always viewed Baloch national aspirations as a threat to the stability and territorial integrity of their countries. Thus, their successive regimes have not only collaborated in suppressing Baloch nationalism and culture but also neglected their Balochistan provinces in terms of economic development, education, and public services.

Little is known about Jundollah, which is believed to have first emerged on the scene in 2002 and is known for bloody attacks against high-profile Iranian targets including government and security officials. Similarly, available information on its top leader, Abdulmalek Rigi, does not go beyond that he is a 24-year-old bearded Iranian Balochi. Contrary to Tehran’s announcement in 2006 that its troops had killed Rigi in an anti-terrorist operation, the man appeared several days later in a video shown by the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV station to deny his death.

What is confirmed, however, is that Iran’s theological Shiite regime is facing a growing challenge in this isolated, backward province where the great majority of the population is Sunni. The February 14 attack on a military bus, in which at least 11 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were killed and some 30 others were injured, was only the latest in a series of such attacks carried out by Jundollah in the last two years.

In March 2006, the group held up a convoy on the road between Zabol and Zahedan and slaughtered 22 people, including officials in the provincial administration of Sistan-Balochistan. In April, it killed two army officers and injured a Shiite cleric in the province. And one month later, it shot dead 12 Iranians on the Kerman to Bam highway.

Earlier in 2005, Jundollah had claimed the responsibility of the abduction of 9 Iranian security and intelligence officers along the Pakistani border, one of whom was executed by the group in early 2006.

The group justifies its attacks as revenge against Iranian security forces for committing alleged genocide and atrocities towards Sunni Baloch civilians. But the hidden goal is probably to make Balochis’ grievances and national aspirations known to the world, especially at this time when Tehran is pressurized by the West and Sunni-Shiite tensions increasingly overshadow the region as a result of developments in Iraq.

This is despite Rigi’s denial that his organization harbours separatist aspirations. In a rare telephone interview last year with Rooz, an Iranian online newspaper, he declared himself an Iranian and Iran as his home, stressed that his move was only aimed at improving the life of Iranian Balochis and protecting their fundamental rights, and advocated the federation of Iran and sovereign Baluchistan within a democratic state.

Tehran, which does not admit its institutionalized distrust of minorities, including the Baloch, and often denies ethnic and sectarian tensions in the country, has met the emerging uprising in Balochistan with force. It has first blamed the recent unrest on bandits smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now it accuses Jundollah of being associated with Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and cooperating with the Americans to destabilize Iran, but without presenting any credible evidence apart from the adherence of Baloch people to conservative Sunni Islam. Moreover, how can one believe that the Americans are supporting and assisting a group that is allegedly affiliated with their enemies at the time when Tehran itself uses the same concept to deny Washington’s accusation of Iran of sheltering senior members of Al-Qaeda, including Osama Bin Laden’s son Saad?

Observers, like independent analyst and consultant Chris Zambelis, argue that Iran’s emphasis on the alleged role of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Baloch uprising is only aimed at showing itself as one of terrorism’s victims. And by brutally striking against Jundollah and its followers, it may be wishing to curry favour with the United States amidst pressure to concede on its nuclear ambitions and meddling in Iraq and Lebanon.

Academic researcher and lecturer specializing in Asian affairs

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