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Western Balochistan under the Iranian Repression

By: Dr. Mohammad Hassan Hosseinbor, LL.B., MA, LL.M., Ph.D.

Iran is a heterogeneous state comprised of six distinct nationalities including Arabs, Baluch, Kurds, Persians, Turks, and Turkmens. Although there are no accurate data as to the population of Iran’s various national groups, the recent scholarly literature tends to agree that non-Persians are a majority comprising at least 55 percent of Iran’s estimated population of 70 million. The five non-Persian nationalities have one other important feature in common: They live along the state’s international borders, which cut across their ethnic homelands, thus dividing them between two or three states. 

In spite of its large and diverse population, its rich natural resources, and its strategic location, Iran has failed to develop its full potentials and to occupy its rightful place in the international community. It lags far behind economically as compared to the emerging economic powers in Asia -Pacific. In contrast to the growing spread of democracies in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, Iran is in the grip of a clerical regime ruling by an iron fist as demonstrated by the recent violent crackdown of a peaceful demonstration in Tehran and the mass executions mentioned in Baluchistan. The backwardness of the Iranian political systems, whether monarchical or clerical, is clearly evident from the relegation of Iranian women, more than half of Iran’s population, to second class citizens as compared with other regional countries such as Bangladesh, India, Israel, and even Pakistan, where women have been repeatedly elected as prime ministers.

Baloch and Iran: A Historical Perspective

Western Balochistan was invaded and incorporated into Iran by Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty, in 1928. As the dominant power in the region at the time, the British supported Reza Shah’s annexation of Baluchistan in order to strengthen Iran as a buffer state against the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Today, Western Baluchistan is divided into three parts to expedite its integration and assimilation into Iran. The largest part constitutes the “Province of Seistan and Baluchistan”. It covers more than 181,578 square kilometres, which is in itself the largest province in Iran. The second part of Iranian Baluchistan is officially known as the Province of Hormuzgan for its location on the Strait of Hormuz. The third and northern part of Iranian Baluchistan is included in the neighbouring Persian-speaking Provinces of Kerman and Khorasan. All three parts combined cover around 280,000 square kilometres. 

In addition to their ancestral homeland Baluchistan, Baluch speak their own language called Baluchi, an ancient Indo-European language, have their distinct culture, share a common history, and adhere to Sunni Islam while Persians follow Shi’ate Islam, the official state religion of the ruling clerics. As a result, Baluch have been subject of constant ethnic, religious, cultural, and economic discrimination and political and military repression ever since their forceful incorporation into Iran in 1928. In turn, the Baluch have been striving to preserve their language and culture and to secure their freedom by resisting the Iranian policies.

Human Rights Violations and Discrimination against the Baluch and Sunnis 

Both Iranian constitutions of 1906 and 1979 failed to recognize the non-Persian national groups or to protect their political and cultural self-rule in their own respective homelands. Consequently, the Baluch and other non-Persian groups have been marginalized and subjected under both monarchical and clerical regimes to blatant discrimination in all spheres of their daily lives. The discrimination is institutionalized and systematic and is geared to the ongoing state policies of Persianization of non-Persian nationalities and conversion of Sunnis, Baha’is, and other religious minorities to shi’ism.

Political Discrimination and Oppression

The core policy of the Persian –dominated governments, both clerical and monarchical, has been to forcefully assimilate or Persianize Baluch and other non-Persian nationalities. In this context, the current clerical regime like its predecessor refers to all six nationalities comprising Iran- namely, Arabs, Baluch, Kurds, Persians, Turks, and Turkmen’s- as constituting a single nation called Millat-e Iran or the “the nation of Iran”. As embodied, interpreted, and implemented in the first Iranian Constitution of 1906 as well as in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of 1979, the concept of “Millat-e Iran” is a manifestation of Persian nationalism which is equated with Iranian nationalism. 

Aside from its theocratic colour and content, “the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran” hardly differs from the Constitution of 1906 in respect to preserving the unitary state system in the country. Like its predecessor, the new constitution ruled out the question of autonomy or any other form of recognition of national, cultural, and religious rights of non-Persian nationalities. It declared in Article 12 that “the official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelve Ja’fari School of Thought and this principle shall remain eternally immutable”. Similarly, Article 15 recognized Persian as the official state language, while prohibiting the use of non-Persian languages in schools, offices, or for any other official use in their respective homelands.

Moreover, the rights of Baluch and Iranian Sunnis, in general, were further restricted by the provision of Article 115, which excluded Sunnis from holding the office of the Presidency of the Republic, thus reducing Baluch and Sunnis to the status of second-class citizens. In addition, the provision of Vilayat-e Faghih (governance of religious jurist) in Article 5 had no base in the tenets of the Sunni branch of Islam and as such, it was not acceptable to Sunnis. According to Article 5, the Valii-e Faghih or governing jurist, who is not elected, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has ultimate authority over all the three branches of the government. As the non-elected supreme leader, he is empowered to dismiss the elected president, to dissolve the parliament, and to remove at will the supposedly independent judicial authorities. Obviously, the concentration of such broad and unchecked powers in the hands of one unelected individual has been strongly opposed by Baluch and other national groups as well as by secular opposition.

In addition, the Baluch have been totally excluded from all the decision-making positions at local, provincial, and central government levels. Almost all provincial governors, city mayors, and the heads of all provincial departments are non– Baluch appointed by the central government. The Baluch and Sunnis were never represented in decision making positions in central government. No Baluch or Sunni ever served as a minister of cabinet or as an ambassador. Even the number of Baluch in the provincial administration is hardly more than five percent of the total civil servants.  

Similarly, the Baluch-speaking areas have been arbitrarily divided administratively into three parts to expedite the Baluch assimilation in accordance with the clerical government’s Persianisation and Shiazation policies as mentioned earlier. This policy towards the Baluch is in no way distinct or different from that pursued toward other non-Persian national groups including Arabs, Kurds, Turks, and Turkmen’s. The differences, if any, are merely in degree not in kind. Although all these national groups possess historically defined geographic homelands, none has been constituted or recognized as a separate administrative unit let alone as a self-autonomous province. Each ethnic region or homeland has been arbitrarily divided into several parts and incorporated in different provinces at different times. Like Baluchistan, Kurdistan and Azerbaijan have been arbitrarily divided into several parts to facilitate their Persianization and to prevent any threat that may arise if Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, or Baluchistan were reconstituted to incorporate all parts of their respective historical homelands.

Mass Executions of Baluch Prisoners

Although the Baluch, with an estimated population of five to seven million, constitute less than 10% of Iranian population, the number of Baluch executed in 2009 exceeded more than half of total executions in Iran. As an example of cold-blooded mass murder by the clerical dictatorship, thirteen young Baluch were hanged in Zahedan prison on July 14, 2009, followed by three more executions the next day. They were accused of membership in the Popular Resistance Movement of Iran, also known as Jundullah, that is fighting for the rights of Baluch and Sunnis against the Shia’t clerical regime in Iran. They were charged with medieval crimes of waging war against God, corruption on earth, and the fabricated charge of collusion with the so-called enemies of the Islamic Republic, namely the US and Israel referred to as “Zionist Entity”. The US and Israel have vehemently denied these charges and Jundullah has rejected them also as baseless fabrications similar to the Islamic Republic’s attempt to attribute the 2013 mass protests against the election fraud in Tehran and other major cities to foreign powers.

The Islamic Republic ignored the repeated calls by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations to halt this mass execution and to accord the accused fair trial and due process of law as required under international law. Subsequently, the EU also condemned this mass execution in Zahedan last.

According to local Baluch sources, the 13 young Baluch executed, including four students of Baluchistan University, had participated in peaceful anti-government demonstrations during and after the presidential election in Zahedan. One of the main reasons for their execution was to suppress a growing uprising and insurgency among ethnic Baluch, who adhere to Sunni Islam, against the Iranian Government run by a Shia’t clerical dictatorship. The mass killing of the Baluch was also intended to send a strong message to other non-Persian ethnic groups- including Iran’s Kurds, Arabs, Azeri Turks, and Turkmens- to prevent similar uprisings among them. 

It is time to warn the world that Western Baluchistan is well on its way to become the Islamic Republic’s Darfur unless the international community acts to stop it before it is too late. The actions of the Islamic Republic against the Baluch certainly constitute crimes against humanity meriting investigation by the UN and international tribunals.

Cultural Discrimination:

The use of Baluchi language, Baluchi schools, and Baluchi publications have been strictly prohibited even in their own homeland Baluchistan. That is also the case with other non-Persian languages. Only Persian history is taught as “Iranian’ history, never the history of Baluch or other national groups. No cultural institutions or activities are tolerated among the Baluch or other non-Persians. Even the Iranian census data do not reflect the nature of its ethnic heterogeneity. Instead, it uses religious designation to emphasize Muslim homogeneity and to distort the multi-ethnic nature of the country.

Among many instances of cultural oppression against the Baluch was the arrest of six members of the Voice of Justice of the Young People’s Society, a Baluch cultural association registered under Iranian law, in early May 2007. This NGO was primarily involved in organizing concerts, arts exhibitions, and educational courses for young Baluch. Subsequently, the head of the organization, Mr. Ya’qub Mehrnehad, a student, Journalist and civil activist, was tried in secret and convicted to death for an unknown offence in early February 2008. He has allegedly been tortured. He is currently on death row without access to his family members or a lawyer. His brother, Ibrahim Mehrnehad, is also in jail and has been also denied access to his family or to a lawyer. 

Economic Discrimination

Economically, centralization of power has led to a pattern of an uneven economic development whereby all trade, industry, and development are concentrated in central Iran to the total exclusion of other regions such as Baluchistan and Kurdistan. As a result, Baluchistan is one of the least developed parts of Iran. This is in spite of the fact that Baluchistan is the largest Iranian Province constituting 15 to 18 per cent of the Iranian landmass, is rich in natural resources, is on major trade routes between Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, and has a 700-mile coastline stretching from Strait of Hurmoz to Pakistani border. 

Iranian Baluchistan is one of the poorest, least developed, and neglected provinces in Iran. According to the UN Common Country Assessment for Iran ( www.undp.org.ir/reports/npd/CCA.pdf ), Baluchistan has the worst indicators among Iranian provinces for life expectancy, school enrolment, adult literacy, infant mortality, and access to drinking water and sanitation. All major economic activities are concentrated in central Iran where the dominant Persians live. Although Baluchistan is known to be rich in minerals including gas, oil, gold, and marine resources, the province is characterized as the “forgotten land”, implying a prolonged economic and social neglect. In spite of the province’s vast resources, there are no major industries in Baluchistan, the Baluch have no control over their resources, and have no say in running Baluchistan’s economy. Literally speaking, the land is being looted by Baluchistan’s new colonial masters in Iran and Pakistan.

The Baluch’s lack of control over their resources is the main cause of underdevelopment of Baluchistan. As a result, there is a growing economic and social gap between Baluch and Persian-dominated regions of Iran, a fact that makes Iran a prime example of uneven development in the world. Under both monarchical and clerical governments, most of the development expenditures in the province were and are geared towards the expansion of the military-related infrastructure such as roads, military bases, and facilities serving Persian bureaucrats and settlers, thus hardly benefiting the Baluch masses. In addition, as far as non-military projects are concerned, they are planned behind closed doors in Tehran, due to the highly centralized nature of economic planning in Iran and implemented through the Persian-controlled provincial bureaucracy. The needs and wants of the Baluch population are not taken into consideration because the Baluch are not represented in economic and political decisions at the provincial level, let alone at the national level. 

Religious Discrimination

The overwhelming majority of the Baluch adhere to Sunni school of Islam as are Kurds, Turkmens, people of Talesh region in the Gilan Province along the Caspian Sea, Persian-speaking regions of Khorasan Province bordering Afghanistan, and the population of southern coasts and islands in the Persian Gulf. Together, the Iranian Sunnis constitute more than a quarter of Iran’s estimated population of 60 million. In spite of its claim to the leadership of the Islamic world, the Islamic Republic of Iran has subjected its Sunni population to religious discrimination and, in some instances, to forceful conversion to Shi’ism. As a matter of fact, the Sunnis have not been allowed to build a mosque in Tehran where several million Sunnis live. This is in spite of the clerical regime’s claim for leadership of the Islamic world. If fellow Muslims are treated so harshly by the Islamic Republic, the fate of Baha’is and other non-Muslim religious minorities should be of great concern to the international community.

Numerous Sunni clerics from Baluchistan, Kurdistan, Turkmen Sahra and other Sunni regions have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and assassinated. As documented by Amnesty International in its report cited above, “A number of Baluch, including Sunni clerics, have been killed in suspicious circumstances both in Iran and Abroad. Similar suspicious deaths of members of other religious minorities or of those opposed to the Iranian authorities point to a pattern of extrajudicial executions by the Iranian authorities”. The said report names only a few of the victims including moulavi (a religious title used by Sunni clerics) Abdolmalek Molaazadeh, Moulavi Abdolnasser JamshidZahi, Moulavi Ahmad Sayyad, and Moulavi Aman Naroui. The author personally knew Moulavi Habibullah Hosseinbor who was summoned to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence in 1984 when he disappeared. Since then, no one ever heard from him and it is believed that he died under torture. Hundreds if not thousands of members of the opposition groups and minorities have suffered a similar fate. 

A practice widely used to discriminate against Baluch and other minorities is Gozinesh meaning selection, an ideological test requiring applicants to universities and candidates for government jobs to demonstrate allegiance to Shia Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran including the concept of Vilayat-e Faghih (Governance of Religious Jurist), a concept not adhered to by Sunnis. This practice has been used to exclude Baluch from admission to universities or employment by the government ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. 

As observed by Amnesty International in its report titled “Iran: Human Right Abuses Against the Baluchi Minority”, dated September 17, 2007, “ In law and practice, this process (i.e. Gozinesh) impairs- on grounds of political opinion, previous political affiliation or support or religious affiliation-equality of opportunity or treatment in employment or occupation for all those who seek employment in the public and parastatal sector ( such as the bonyads) and, reportedly, in some instances in parts of private sector.”

Dr M. Hosseinbor is a Washington D.C. lawyer who facilitates trade, joint ventures, investments and project developments between American corporations and their counterparts from the Gulf countries. He also is the author of, ” Iran and its Nationalities: the case of Baluch nationalism”.Dr Hosseinbor previously served as Energy and Economic advisor to the embassy of the state of Qatar in Washington D.C from 1982 to 1998. He previously served as an adjunct professor of law at the Catholic University of America. He has written extensively on various issues relating to the Middle East, including a treatise on Iran and its nationalities. 

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