By Fatemeh Aman
March 12, 2019
The Iranian government has long accused
some of its neighbouring states of using terrorism and insurgency to destabilize
the country. There may be some truth to these accusations. But Iran’s treatment
of minority groups has also contributed to the rise of militancy.
Immediately after the February 13 terrorist
attack in the city of Khash in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, which
killed more than 20 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),
Iranian authorities began pointing fingers at other countries, including
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The Baluchistan region is divided between
Pakistan’s Balochistan province and Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province.
This area has frequently seen the rise of violent insurgent groups. One of
these—Jaish al-Adl (“Army of Justice” in Arabic), which was founded in 2012 by
Baluch militant Salahuddin Farooqui and is believed to be based in
Pakistan—took responsibility for the Khash attack. Jaish al-Adl has claimed
responsibility for many abductions and deadly attacks against the Iranian
military, the IRGC, and Iranian civilians in the past, including the October
2018 abduction of 12 Iranian border guards. Pakistan later freed some of these
men, and they returned to Iran.
Iran has in the past accused Pakistan of
being either unable or unwilling to confront Baluch militants, charges the
Pakistanis deny. In response to the Khash attack, General Qassem Soleimani,
commander of IRGC Quds Force, accused Pakistan of failing to take actions
against the insurgents. Speaking to a crowd in the city of Babol, Soleimani
addressed Pakistan: “You have the atomic bomb and you cannot destroy a
terrorist group of only a few hundred members?” He accused the Saudis of
investing in Pakistan with the intent of dividing and “destroying” the country.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry took a more
diplomatic tone. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that Pakistan had promised
to do anything “to prevent similar acts.” This is not a good time for Tehran to
threaten Pakistan, a neighbour whose friendship Iran needs more than ever
No evidence suggests that the Saudis
directly finance armed groups in Sistan and Baluchistan. However, it is clear
from other examples that the Saudis do fund anti-Iran militant groups.
Additionally, the Saudis have reportedly provided al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate
with U.S. weapons.
Failures of Governance
Iran’s response to terrorist attacks has
generally been violent, emphasizing executions and militarization. But these do
not address the causes of Baluch militancy.
More than 12 million Baluch are spread
across Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. About 60 percent of them live in
Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan. The population density in Balochistan
province is low, perhaps due to its scarcity of water and mountainous terrain.
Iran’s Baluch population is over 1.5 million.
The Baluch in both countries share ethnic,
cultural, and religious similarities, and have always kept their economic and
political links as well. However, they may not necessarily have the same
demands. In fact, separatist urges have been stronger among Pakistani Baluch
than among Iranian Baluch. In Iran, the main issue for the Baluch is religious
freedom, as their Sunnism is not protected in Iran as it is in Pakistan.
Iranian Sunnis, for example, are often denied permission to build mosques in
majority Shia cities.
The insurgency along the Pakistan-Iran
border is not a new phenomenon or something created in post-revolutionary Iran.
This region has long been subject to unrest and insurgencies. Prior to Iran’s
1979 revolution, the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, fearing anything to
do with the Soviets, helped Pakistan crack down on left-leaning Baluch
In Pakistan, where the poverty rate in
Balochistan rose to 71 percent by 2016, the issue for the Baluch people is
marginalization. Plans to develop Pakistan’s Gwadar port and Iran’s Chabahar
port are intended in part to develop the regional economy and alleviate this
poverty. Molavi Abdol-Hamid Ismaeelzahi, a very well respected Sunni religious
leader and the Friday prayer imam in Zahedan, a city in Iran’s Sistan and
Baluchestan province, told Anatoli News Agency that “in Sistan and Baluchistan
region, there is privation, unemployment, and poverty. Developing Chabahar
[port] can transform this city and the province.” He went on to say: “We
emphasize the participation of the people of Sistan and Baluchistan, especially
in Chabahar. People need to have education and training to be able to
participate in the development of the region.”
Marginalization of Minorities
Insurgencies are not always driven by
hatred toward the regime and establishment. Sometimes they’re driven by
poverty. The Baluchistan region is extremely underdeveloped and poor. Broad and
widespread discrimination is also an additional factor in alienating young
The Iranian government has often viewed the
Baluch, and other ethnic and religious minorities, as a fifth column working
for Iran’s enemies. Even if foreign adversaries are attempting to fuel tension
and unrest inside Iran, the Iranian government nevertheless bears some
responsibility for the situation in Baluchistan. It’s not just money that
creates suicide bombers. It’s also hopelessness and feelings of isolation.
Condemning the terrorist attack on February
13 “in the strongest terms,” Molavi Abdelhamid stated, “without doubt this kind
of act will harm the people of Sistan and Baluchistan’s longing for security
If Iran can sit down with its former arch
enemy, the Taliban, it should be able to start dialog with not only Baluch
religious and local leaders, but also some Baluch insurgent groups. There is no
better weapon the Iranian government could use to neutralize foreign powers who
want to destabilize it than easing tension with its minority groups and working
to reduce unemployment, decrease poverty, and end discrimination.
Fatemeh Aman, a non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South
Asia Centre, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs
for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her
writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic
Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the
Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic
Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author
of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability