By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ZAHEDAN, Iran - The world outside Iran
sees political turmoil in the student demonstrations.
This, however, is just a small segment of a big canvas.
The demonstrations, restricted within campus walls, are
nothing but a storm in a teacup compared to other
factors that are silently simmering in Iranian society.
What is more, it is these other factors that, unlike the
students, may constitute a deadly antithesis to the
hardline Shi'ite clerical establishment.
An independent study of Iranian society
based on conversations with Iranian student leaders,
political leaders, clerics and workers suggests that the
present political turmoil taking place in Tehran is
unlikely to translate into a revolt against the present
system. Instead, these protests are likely to be settled
through compromises within the existing setup. And, in
fact, these compromises are taking place with every
circles, business groups, artists and workers are not on the
verge of revolting against the establishment; what they are
doing is trying to mould the establishment into new
forms according to their own definition of human rights.
The threat of revolution,
if any exists in Iran, will come not from
Tehran, but from the fiercely
independent Sistan-o-Baluchestan province near the Iranian-Pakistan border.
This area contains 70 percent of the country's Sunni population,
and used to be the base of
the banned Iranian group Mujahideen-i-Khalq Organization (MKO),
which translates as the "People's Fighters". The MKO
fought the ruling Shi'ite mullahs until, after brutal
suppression, its leaders were forced to flee, mostly to
The MKO has been characterized at times as
a left-wing, pro-socialist organization; at other times
as an alliance between left-wingers and supporters of
the former Shah. But for residents of Zahedan and
Iranian Balochistan, the characterizations are
meaningless. Under the pretext of fighting the MKO, all
Zahedanis and Balochis were targeted by the central
government no matter what their politics and, for this
reason, the MKO is heroic in the eyes of many in these
Mohammed (not his real name) is one of
these. A resident of Zahedan who runs a grocery store,
he has relatives who were associated with MKO. In
return, every member of his family has been targeted.
"After a rally against the Iranian government in Zahedan
several years ago, the Iranian government carried out
operations, and soldiers of the Iranian military marched
to the area with aerial firing to harass the people. One
stray bullet killed my brother," he says.
took the body with me and met the concerned army officer
and mentioned that they had killed a peaceful citizen.
The officer said they were given a task to 'eliminate
the dogs, and your brother was of the same lot'. They
referred to the Sunni Muslims of Zahedan as 'dogs'."
When this correspondent mentioned statements of
the late Imam Khomeini that stressed harmony between
Shi'ites and Sunnis, and also pointed out graffiti on
the walls of Zahedan that read: "Shi'ite, Sunnis in
brotherhood" - Khan provided a different perspective.
"When you meet Iranian officials in Tehran, ask them why
they do not allow a Sunni mosque in Tehran, despite a
good number of Sunnis living there? During the election
campaign, President Mohammad Khatami had pledged to
allow a Sunni mosque in Tehran. This was nothing but
election sloganeering. After he won the elections, he
was reminded of his promise but he said that the
[Supreme] Leader [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei had not agreed
to the proposal."
Mohammed continued, "There
used to be a single mosque in Mashad, where the
Sunni population is 10 percent. That single mosque was turned into
a park in just one night. What justification
do Iranian officials have for the demolition of that
Apart from religious rights, Zahedanis
are also denied basic rights. The representation of
Zahedanis in government is very low, while their
presence in essential services such as the Iranian army
is almost non-existent. Iranian officials generally
argue that Zahedanis are generally rustic people who do
not have the quality of education to qualify for good
Apparently it is a valid answer - but
that is only because Sistan-o-Baluchestan is the only
region of Iran where access to quality education is
non-existent. There is only one technical college and no
university in Zahedan. Wrong or right, there is a
general perception in Zahedan that since the military
and police are under the control of the Shi'ite clerics,
Zahedanis are not given jobs in these departments.
These feelings are very common in Zahedan and
generate a feeling of defiance against the Iranian
establishment. It is a fact that Zahedanis are not
urbane like Tehranis or Isfhanis. They live near the
border area of Pakistani Balochistan and Afghanistan and
therefore they share certain tribal values and a way of
life with the Balochi-Pashtun belt of Pakistan and
Thus one easily discerns a negative attitude
toward the central government among Zahedanis, who generally have
no hesitation in defying any Iranian laws. For instance,
only certain kinds of music are allowed in Iran. Indian
music is not alowed. However, all Iranians
from Zahedan to Tehran enjoy listening to Indian music.
In Tehran, they listen to it only in their houses; in
Zahedan all the taxi drivers play Indian music as loud
as they want without fear.
Iranian officials and
clerics sitting in Tehran always suspect the loyalties
of Zahedanis, but they have never taken any concrete
steps to improve their lives. Several sources in Tehran
are positive that, in fact, Zahedan will be a real
flashpoint if the US were to try to infiltrate by
supporting a revived MKO.
Over the past few
years, Iranian reformist parties have tried to forge
better ties with those living in the belt of Iranian
Sistan-o-Baluchestan. The people of Zahedan voted in
favor of the reformist parties, but now, even in the
second term of President Khatami, they feel that they
are still second-class citizens. Thus, years of
repression by hardliners and political bungling by
reformists in Tehran have created a facet of Iranian
society that is dead-set against the ruling clergy, that
feels like second-class citizens - and that lies
situated dangerously along the Pakistani border.
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