By Abdullah Al Madani, Special to Gulf News, February 24, 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 the media glare.
This, however, seems to be changing now with an escalating insurgency led by an obscure Baloch militant organisation 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 ties 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.
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.
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 responsibility for 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 pressurised 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 organisation 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.
Tehran, which does not admit its institutionalised 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 Qaida and the Taliban and cooperating with the Americans to destabilise Iran.
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 Qaida?
Dr Abdullah Al Madani is an academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs.