Middle East

Iran's unsung rebellion
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 passing day.

Iranian religious 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 Iraq.

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 regions.

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.

"I 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 mosque?"

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 jobs.

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 Afghanistan.

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.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies, or to submit a letter to the editor.)
Dec 17, 2002

Iran's economy: No quick fix (Dec 13, '02)

Iranians struggle just to get by (Dec 12, '02)

Why Iranians protest (Dec 11, '02)

In Iran, an economic stalemate (Dec 7, '02)

Iran's Aghajari: Scourge of the clergy (Dec 3, '02)


Click here to be one)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright Asia Times Online, 6306 The Center, Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong.