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Inside Iran’s Most Secretive Region

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Image Credit: Karlos Zurutuza

Sistan and Balochistan has been described as akin to Mars on Earth. For all the attention they get from Tehran, many Baloch feel they may as well be on another planet.

By Karlos Zurutuza

May 16, 2011

‘It’s the closest thing to Mars on Earth,’ concluded a group of US geologists visiting the region of Sistan and Balochistan in the early 1970s. And since Iran’s revolution in 1979, the country’s southeast feels as little explored as the Red Planet.

Balochistan, as the Baloch refer to their homeland, is divided today between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the fact that the region is a virtual no-go area for the international media shouldn’t disguise its potential strategic importance. After all, the area—roughly the size of France—holds significant reserves of gas, gold, copper, oil and uranium, and also has a 1,000-kilometre coastline at the gates of the Persian Gulf.

‘(But) unlike what happened in Pakistani-controlled Balochistan, Tehran hasn’t exploited the energy and mineral reserves in the area,’ says Prof. Taj Muhammad Breseeg. ‘It prefers that the region’s resources and population remain undeveloped.’

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Today, the region has the lowest per capita income in Iran, with almost 80 percent of the Baloch people living below the poverty line by some estimates. The average life expectancy, meanwhile, is at least eight years lower than the national average, while infant mortality rates are the highest in the country. It all results, suggests Breseeg, from Tehran’s ‘policy of assimilation.’

‘Annexation of the region to Iran in 1928 brought terrible episodes of repression, caused a mass exodus of the local population and saw virtually every Baloch place name changed toa Persian one,’ Breseeg says.

The problem for Balochs is that they are Sunni Muslims in a Shiite-ruled nation. ‘The Islamic Shiite missionaries sent by Tehran told us that we’d have no jobs, no schools and no opportunities unless we converted,’ says Faiz Baloch, one of thousands of Baloch refugees who were forced to leave their homeland.

Now based in Britain, Faiz recounts the incident 10 years ago that he says was the last straw in pushing him out. ‘(I had) a heated discussion with two Islamic Guards. They raided our home and wanted to arrest me,’ he says. ‘I managed to escape, but they took my father instead. That was the last time I saw or heard from him.’ Faiz says he believes it likely his father was hanged soon after he was detained.

According to figures from Amnesty International, Iran executed at least 1,481 people from 2004 to 2009, with the London-based International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons claiming that about 55 percent of these were Baloch. The organization claims that the Baloch in Iran have endured the highest concentration of death penalties handed down as a percentage of population in the world for nearly a decade under the Islamic regime.

Faiz is studying for university admission exams, something he says would have been much harder in his native Sistan and Balochistan. ‘There are currently about 3.3 million university students in Iran, but Baloch account for probably only 2,000 students,’ he says. ‘Most Baloch students don’t find a job after graduation anyway.’

It was this harsh economic and political climate that fostered the creation of Jundallah—a religious and political organisation established in 2002 claiming rights for the local Baloch. Jundallah is believed to organize a range of disruptive activities in support of its cause, including suicide bombings and more selective attacks, such as the alleged kidnapping of an Iranian nuclear scientist last September.

‘The greatest paradox of all this is that it was the Ayatollahs’ regime that initially supported the Sunni Mullahs in the early 1980s,’ says Shahzavar Karimzadi, a Baloch economist and human rights activist who currently teaches at London Metropolitan University. ‘It was another way to counter the ever increasing popularity of the progressive secular democratic left among Baloch people.’

What’s in a Name?

‘Eighty years ago, this area was called “Balochistan.” Later it became “Balochistan and Sistan” and today it’s “Sistan and Balochistan”…we all think that before too long it will just be called “Sistan,”’ remarks a taxi driver as he steers his way along the grid-like streets of Zahedan.

Once known as ‘Duzzap’, the provincial capital of Zahedan was renamed by the Pahlavi rulers. The demographic balance in this south-eastern city has tilted in favour of the newcomers and local Baloch complain that they’ve now been excluded from the economic, political, administrative, military and cultural affairs in their homeland.

The most distinctive physical features of the city are the two slender golden minarets of the Jamia mosque, the city’s most prominent Shiite shrine. But in July 2010, the mosque suffered a twin suicide bomb attack that claimed the lives of at least 27 people, and injured hundreds more.

Not far away here, Rasool has been running a photo studio for almost 30 years. Many Persians like Rasool moved here in the hope of finding work. But now in his 60s, Rasool grumbles about the deterioration of the security situation over the past five years.

‘There’s just such uncertainty here,’ complains Rasool, who says he doesn’t know whether he will retire in Zahedan or eventually move back to his hometown of Shiraz.

About 1,500 kilometres south-east of Tehran, the wind whistles noisily through the dried palm trees of the city of Iranshahr, which sits in one of the hottest parts of the country.

‘There’s no cinema and no theatre here. Tehran spends billions funding Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Syrians, the Shiites in Iraq, the Taliban,’ says Rahim, a young looking man standing across from a billboard bearing the face of Ayatollah Khomeini. ‘But nothing ever arrives here.’

Like most Baloch here, Rahim wears traditional Baloch clothes consistingof a shalwar kameez—the baggy shirt and trousers worn frequently in Afghanistan and on the Indian subcontinent, but which only the Baloch wear in Iran. Indeed, this local style of clothing is the only visible indicator of Baloch identity that is allowed here—other symbols are expressly forbidden, while writing exclusively in the Baloch language is regarded as a criminal offence. Only the bravest Baloch in the area will boast a picture on their cell phones of Baloch leaders from across the border, such as the late Balaach Marri, or local notables such as Abdul-Malik Rigi, Jundallah’s former ringleader.

Rigi, believed to have been in his late 20s, was executed last June after being held in Iran. He was either captured in Kandahar before being handed over by Pakistani authorities, or detained in Persian Gulf waters when travelling on a plane via Dubai, depending on the news source you believe.

Travelling from Iranshahr to the deepwater port city of Chabahar by bus takes about five hours. The monotony of the journey is briefly interrupted by a mandatory stop to pray. The prayer posts are purpose-built, rudimentary mosques in the middle of the desert. A suicide attack in the city by Jundallah in December was yet another reminder of the tensions that periodically rip violently through the region. About 40 Shiite worshippers were killed as they were celebrating the Ashura, one of Shia Islam’s main religious events.

‘Our problems aren’t only due to the fact that we are neither Persian nor Shia,’ says Abdul-Sattar, who like most people here, is Sunni. The 50 year-old says he survives on the goods (mainly Chinese and Indian) he transports with his truck up to the Afghan border, almost 1,000 kilometres away. ‘Perhaps we were just born in the wrong place and the wrong time.’

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