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Is Iran afraid of the Baloch awakening?

October 3, 2023 at 4:30 am

Every Friday, activists across the Balochistan region of Iran hold anti-regime protests demanding freedom, justice and equality. Image from 8 September 2023 demonstration [@haalvsh/X]

As the Baloch mark the first anniversary of Zahedan’s Bloody Friday on 30 September, Tehran has stepped up its efforts to curb the protests in Balochistan. The Baloch activists had given a call to commemorate the massacre with a two-day protest. To prevent this, the Iranian regime responded by increasing the military presence in the region. According to reports, several military convoys arrived in Balochistan from the neighbouring provinces. Yet, on Friday, despite the siege-like environment in the region, people took to the streets and held rallies and demonstrations against the regime. The next day, a general strike was observed in the towns and cities of Balochistan. Meanwhile, protests and clashes continued in the streets of Zahedan. According to rights groups, at least 23 people, including children, were injured, and more than 100 were arrested in the crackdown by security forces.

On Bloody Friday, Iranian security forces killed more than 100 protesters and worshippers, including at least 13 children, for holding a protest in Balochistan’s capital Zahedan following the rape of a teenage girl by an Iranian police commander in Chabahar.  A month later, on 4 November, regime forces attacked the Friday protests in Khash City of Balochistan and killed at least 18 people.

For a year now the people of this region have continued to protest the oppression of the Khamenei regime. The protests in Balochistan are inspiring rights activists and oppressed peoples across Iran. Every Friday, the cities of Balochistan echo with anti-regime slogans as people demand freedom, justice and equality. The use of force and deceptive overtures of the regime have failed to silence the Baloch-Sunni ethno-religious minority.

To suppress the voice of these protestors, Iran disrupts the internet connectivity in Zahedan every Friday. The ongoing internet restrictions led to Iran being named the country with the most internet disruptions during the first half of 2023.

The gulf between Tehran and the Baloch has widened to an unprecedented level, but the regime remains adamant about continuing its repressive policies in Balochistan. Subduing this remote and restive region has become a critical challenge for the regime. Yet, ironically, the authorities in Tehran thought they could camouflage the situation by taking some people to Tehran for a meeting with his holiness, the supreme leader of Iran.

Days before the anniversary of the Bloody Friday massacre, the desperate authorities in Iran’s province of Sistan-Balochistan announced a meeting of the notables of this region with Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. The meeting aimed at giving a message of unity and allegiance to conceal the prevailing discontent. However, despite all the hype, propaganda and intimidation, even this symbolic expression of unity and strength failed to give favourable results.

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The absence of Baloch leadership further highlighted the deep divide and distrust between Balochistan and the regime in Tehran. Similarly, in Khamenei’s talk there was no mention of the internal problems and incidents that led to the ongoing protests and crisis; instead, he blamed the United States for attempting to create crises in Iran.

Despite a year of protests, the Iranian regime still refuses to hold the perpetrators of the Bloody Friday incidents accountable, as the directions to crush the protesters had come from the top. Also, any semblance of accountability might compromise the systemic impunity of the regime authorities. Therefore, most of the officials held responsible by the people for their alleged role in the massacre continue to occupy important positions.

The Khamenei regime is facing a dilemma in Balochistan. It wants to continue with repressive policies and use of force to firmly control the region, but also remains apprehensive of the spread of resistance. It wants to reduce the rising unrest in Balochistan but without giving any concessions to the Baloch. Such contradictions and mistrust mark Iran’s century-long problematic relationship with the Baloch.

The erstwhile Pahlavi monarchy and the ruling Shia-Persian theocracy, both persecuted the Baloch and deprived them of their national rights. Iran’s Persian-centric system structurally discriminates against minorities. Its policy towards the Baloch can be described by the desire to ‘assimilate or annihilate’ them. Over a century, successive Persian regimes have followed a comprehensive Persianisation policy in Balochistan to deprive the Baloch of their separate national identity, culture, language and religion. The division of Balochistan into multiple provinces (including, eastern Hormozgan, southern Kerman and southern Khorasan) besides Sistan–Balochistan and curbs on Balochi language and culture are depictive of such policies. Being Sunnis and non-Persians there has been no space for the Baloch in power structures — even at the local level. Such policies have created an apartheid-like environment for non-Persian nationalities in Iran.

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Balochistan is the most poor and deprived region in Iran. The state has systematically closed the doors of employment and human development on the Baloch masses. Any expression of dissent is strictly suppressed. Now, Iran is seeking more permanent solutions to subdue them. Thousands of families remain deprived of identity documents and Baloch villages are being forcefully seized by the government. However, eyeing Chinese investment, Iran has plans to ‘develop’ the coast of Balochistan by settling five million Iranians there. This will lead to a demographic change — converting the Baloch into a minority in their own homeland. However, it may also backfire. Similar plans, aimed at changing the demography of Gwadar by Pakistan in its Balochistan province fuelled the Baloch insurgency to a level that five successive Pakistani governments have failed to normalise the situation.

Balochistan, the homeland of the Baloch people, is currently divided between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The division of Balochistan took place during the late 19th century (1871-96) when the British Empire drew the present boundaries splitting the country into multiple spheres of influence. The western part of Balochistan was incorporated by Persia after a military invasion in 1928, while the remnant Khanate of Balochistan was annexed by Pakistan in 1948.

Besides unprecedented mass protests, there has also been a gradual increase in insurgent activity in the region. This year, more than 20 security personnel have been killed in a spate of attacks in different parts of the province. Although the protest movement in Balochistan is peaceful, suppression of political activity and the crackdown on unarmed protesters may end up strengthening the insurgents’ stance of dealing with the regime’s oppression through armed struggle.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.