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Blaming Outsiders Won’t Solve Iran's Baluchistan Problem

An Iranian cleric prays over the coffins of the victims of the Zahedan attacks during a mass funeral in the southeastern Iranian city on July 17.
An Iranian cleric prays over the coffins of the victims of the Zahedan attacks during a mass funeral in the southeastern Iranian city on July 17.
The twin suicide bombings on July 15 at the Jameh mosque in the Iranian city of Zahedan, Sistan-Baluchistan Province, left 27 people dead and more than 300 injured. The explosions, which coincided with the commemoration of the birthday of Imam Hussein, the third Shi'ite imam, and the Day of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), occurred about one month after the hanging of Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the Jundallah insurgent group.

The latest attack was the second time Jundallah has resorted to suicide bombings, following an October 18, 2009, bombing in which five senior IRGC commanders were killed. The new tactic (previously, Jundallah had limited itself to bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations) shows the growing influence of radical Islamist ideologies such as those espoused by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The Iranian authorities' first reaction to the Zahedan attack was to claim that the terrorists were receiving their orders from -- take your pick -- the United States, Great Britain, and/or Zionists. Such statements came at the same time that U.S. President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and senior British officials unanimously condemned the indiscriminate act of terrorist violence.

Tehran also took measures to boost security in the province and arrested about 40 people in Zahedan. Brigadier General Ahmad-Reza Radan, deputy commander of the police force, commented that the insecurity in Sistan-Baluchistan Province stems from beyond Iran's borders and that is why "the closure of the Iran-Pakistan border has been put on the agenda."

In conjunction with this, Brigadier General Ali Fazli, deputy commander of the Basij militia, said the Basij should play a greater role in maintaining security in the province, which has a porous 1,100-kilometer border with Pakistan and Afghanistan and a 300-kilometer coastline on the Gulf of Oman. The province is rife with smuggling, drugs trafficking, banditry, and gun-running – problems the Islamic republic has been unable to contain over the last three decades.

Three Stark Fault Lines

The endemic problems in Sistan-Baluchistan Province have cultural, economic, ethnic, and sectarian dimensions. They cannot be permanently resolved by military force alone.

Over the last six years, with the worsening of security in Sistan-Baluchistan and the increased Jundallah violence, Tehran has tightened security and deployed more IRGC and Basij units to the province, but it has seen few improvements. In fact, sending more troops has added to the oppression and increased tensions.

Sistan-Baluchistan's problems -- which echo those in Kurdistan and Khuzestan provinces -- have exposed three stark fault lines within the Iranian political system, analyst Behruz Khaliq told RFE/RL'S Radio Farda: national-ethnic, Shi'ite-Sunni, and center-periphery.

Over the last three decades, with the exception of the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the government has done little for the country's ethnic and religious minorities. In fact, the regime has ignored the implementation of Articles 15 and 19 of the constitution, which give equal rights to all Iranians irrespective of their race, color, or language. Ethnic groups are deprived of the right to use their languages in the media, and those who defy such restrictions or try to publish books, journals, or papers in their own language face punishment or severe censorship.

Sistan-Baluchistan Province -- the second largest in the country, with a population of 2.5 million -- remains the most economically underdeveloped, desolate, and impoverished province, with high unemployment and a general lack of basic amenities. The government has done very little to combat systematic discrimination against Baluchis and improve their daily lives. Many Iranian Baluchis see themselves as second-class citizens in their own country.

Despite The Propaganda

Most Baluchis are Sunnis, and despite the regime's propaganda that Sunnis and Shi'a are equal, they are not allowed to practice their beliefs freely. In the past, Sunni mosques were occasionally destroyed by the government under various pretexts. So far, the state has resisted the establishment of a Sunni mosque in Tehran, and Sunni clerics in cities such as Zahedan and Sanandaj who do not abide by the dictates of the Shi'ite regime are either harassed or denounced as Wahhabis.

Sunnis are not even allowed to run freely their own seminaries or religious institutions, of which there are few. The Shi'ite state has given scant opportunities to Sunnis in the running of the country or in the management of the affairs of Sunni-majority provinces. Officials who are sent from Tehran to provinces such as Sistan-Baluchistan are often ignorant of ethnic sensitivities and the needs of local peoples. Local participation in local administration is not encouraged, even though the constitution says otherwise.

Everything is dictated from the center, and this exacerbates the alienation of local residents. Members of parliament from Sistan-Baluchistan have little room to maneuver in the stifling and oppressive environment in Tehran, and therefore can do little to help their constituents. After the Zahedan suicide bombings, two deputies from the city resigned to protest the government’s inability to maintain security in the province. However, speaker Ali Larijani has asked them to return to the chamber and to present the legitimate needs of the people to lawmakers.

Since there have been similar cases in the past and apparent arm-twisting led to the withdrawal of the resignations, the gesture of these Zahedan deputies appears to be more of a political game than a true protest.

Currently faced with many domestic challenges, economic woes, and external pressure, the government seems to be in no position to cope with the problems in Sistan-Baluchistan Province except by resorting to military force and blaming other countries. Tehran has particularly singled out Pakistan for allegedly providing safe haven to Jundallah fighters -- to the extent that Alaeddin Borujerdi, chairman of the parliament's Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security, announced the possibility of Iranian forces entering Pakistan’s territory to fight terrorists, though he stressed "the decision for such action remains with the Supreme Council for National Security."

In addition to tightening security measures in Sistan-Baluchistan, the government must take a holistic view of the endemic problems there. What is urgently needed is a fair allocation of resources, intensive development of public infrastructure, equal treatment of Baluchis, a loosening of the tight controls on Sunnis, and the inclusion of locals in running local affairs.

Hossein Aryan is deputy director of RFE/RL's Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL