Explainer: Why does Iran's Baluchistan bear the brunt of the uprising?

Explainer: Why does Iran's Baluchistan bear the brunt of the uprising?
4 min read
05 December, 2022
Iran's most impoverished province Sistan-o Baluchistan has been at the forefront of the latest anti-establishment movement, with at least 128 deaths in two months.
Iran's most impoverished province Sistan-o Baluchistan has been at the forefront of the latest anti-establishment movement, with at least 128 deaths in two months. [Getty]

For the tenth successive Friday, the people of Zahedan demonstrated against the government after the Friday prayer on 2 December, some shouting, "Khamenei is a killer, his reign is wicked".

BBC Persian reported that the security forces shot live ammunition and tear gas at protestors in this southeastern city.

Zahedan is the capital of Iran's most impoverished province Sistan-o Baluchistan, housing the Baluch minority ethnic group, who predominantly are followers of the Sunni branch of Islam.

Unlike other Iranian cities, where protestors gather after dark in small scattered groups in several neighbourhoods, in Zahedan, people demonstrate around the Makki Grand Mosque in large numbers after the Friday prayers. 

Residents of other Baluch cities, such as Saravan, Khash, Sarbaz and Rask, follow the same pattern of protests, despite the heavy presence of the police's Special Unites and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

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Since mid-September and the beginning of the anti-establishment protests in Iran, the people of Sistan-o Baluchistan have faced the deadliest crackdown in the country. According to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights, 128 people have been killed by the security forces in the province.

Molavi Abdolhamid, the most respected Sunni leader in central and eastern parts of the country, who supported the far-right President Ebrahim Raisi in the 2021 elections, also revealed that protestors were shot by snipers in the heart and head on 30 September in what is known as Zahedan's Bloody Friday.

On 30 September, the most brutal attacks on anti-establishment demonstrators occurred in Zahedan, when the security forces killed at least 82 people with live ammunition. 

The independent rights activists who spoke with The New Arab put the number much higher, saying at least 100 people were killed in Zahedan's Bloody Friday.

"It was a massacre of the Baluch people," Fariba Balouch, a prominent rights activist, told TNA. "The death toll is much higher than 100, as some shot that day were from the Shir Abad neighbourhood, where many poor people do not even have a birth certificate.

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On that day, demonstrators cascaded into the streets after the Friday prayer in protest of allegations about the rape of a 15-year-old Baluch girl by a police colonel in Chabahar port city.

That case had kindled protests in Sistan-o Baluchistan, however, with the rising number of deaths by live ammunition, the case remained unsolved and forgotten. 

The unprecedented brutality deployed by the IRGC and security forces to crack down on Baluch protestors forced Moein al-Din Saeedi, a legislator from the province, to blast the attacks in Iran's parliament.

"Why confrontation tactics to contain the protests in this province are different? Why in other parts of the country pellet and rubber bullets are used against the protestors, but live ammunition in Baluchistan…" he said to the parliament. 

However, he could not finish his speech, and the board of directors turned off his microphone in the middle of his address. Saeedi criticised the crackdowns despite his close ties with the establishment. 

Fariba Balcuh explained to TNA that the government's ruthless response to protestors in Baluchistan is rooted in decades of religious and ethnic discrimination. About 10 per cent of Iranians are Sunnis, mainly living in two provinces of Kurdistan and Sistan-o Baluchistan.

"The central government has always brutally responded to the Baluch people's righteous demands because they don't see any political cost in killing, jailing and discriminating these poor people," she added.

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According to this activist, the authorities used the pretext of religious and ethnic differences to deprive the Baluch of their fundamental rights of having access to health care, clean water, education, social infrastructure, and having a representative in crucial political offices.

Moreover, dire poverty has turned this region into a hotspot for drug trafficking from Afghanistan, which resulted in one of the world's most under-reported drug wars. In the early 1990s, the former IRGC top general Qassem Soleimani commanded this war for the Iranian government.

The price of the drug war has been so high for the Baluch people. Shahindokht Molaverdi, a deputy of former president Hassan Rouhani, revealed that in a village in Sistan-o Baluchistan, all men were killed in confrontations with the anti-narcotic forces or were hung in prisons. 

"Everyone knows that the high-ranking drug mafias are untouchable because they work hand in hand with the IRGC. These poor ordinary citizens from the bottom of the pyramid get arrested and executed for drug-related crimes. And the government has used this as an excuse to more harshly respond to these people's requests for their basic rights, for bringing to justice the person who raped a teenage girl from a village," Baluch stressed.

Despite all the lives lost in Iran's Baluchistan since 30 September, Fariba Baluch is hopeful about the future. According to her analysis, the current uprising made the Iranian Baluch people's voices be heard internationally for the first time. 

"No one can predict the future," she said. "But we can be sure about one thing. There is no return. Our people and this country will never return to where it was before the uprising."