With tensions rising in Iran’s volatile Sunni-dominated Sistan-Baluchistan, a leading Sunni cleric called on Tehran on Saturday to give greater religious freedom and political acknowledgement to the Islamic Republic’s Sunni minority.
“The question is why [Sunnis] cannot be minister, vice-minister, ambassador and governor? It is our legal right to be acknowledged and participate in the fate of our country,” Molavi Abdol-Hameed said, according to Sunni Online, an Iranian Sunni news outlet.
Abdol-Hameed said that though Iran’s Sunnis are technically guaranteed rights under the Iranian constitution, in practice they are discriminated against including in the workplace and in terms of religion.
Sunni Muslims in Iran make up only about 10 percent of the Islamic Republic’s population and in recent decades have complained that Iran has denied them permission to build mosques in large Iranian cities, including in Tehran.
In Sistan-Baluchistan, the second-largest, most desolate and poorest of Iran’s 31 provinces, Sunnis are the majority.
The province, which borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, is home to the Sunni Muslim Baluchi ethnic group, who say Iran’s Shi’ite leadership has done little to develop the remote region and has failed to deal with the extensive drug-smuggling and gun-running problems that plague the province.
The province is considered one of Tehran’s largest domestic security problems and has seen a number of terrorist attacks by the Jundollah (“Soldiers of God”) organization, which emerged in 2002 claiming rights for the Sunni Baluchi peoples.
Jundollah, whose leader Abdul Malek Rigi was executed in 2010 and which both Iran and the US has designated a terrorist group, has claimed responsibility for a number of large terrorist attacks in the province.
Last week, a new Sunni rebel group with links to Jundollah claimed responsibility for the latest suicide bombing that took place in Chabahar city on October 19 and which Iran said killed two members of Iran’s Basij forces.
The group, Harakat Ansar Iran, named Jundollah leader Rigi as their spiritual leader, and said that the suicide attack, codenamed Operation Ra’ad, had deliberately targeted a meeting of Iranian Basij and IRGC commanders.
Ansar Iran also called on local Baluchis to join in attacks, saying in a separate statement that the Sunni ethnic group suffer from poverty and discrimination.
As in the past, Iran immediately rushed to accuse Israel of aiding Baluchi rebels in the bombing.
“These [Sunni] groups are given logistical support by the spy services of the Zionist regime and take action in line with the policies of this illegitimate regime,” MP Mohammad Reza Mohseni Thani of Iran’s Majlis (parliament) Security and Foreign Policy Committee told the Iranian Student News Agency’s Persian service last week.
Another Majlis security committee member, MP Mohammad Hassan Asafari, told ISNA that Ansar Iran was attempting to foment “war between Shias and Sunnis.”
Alluding to a crackdown against Sunni rebels in Sistan and Baluchistan, Asafari said that over the past 19 months, Iran has arrested or killed over 250 people who tried to enter Iran to carry out terror attacks.
Over the weekend, Ansar Iran said that Iranian intelligence officials had threatened and abducted Sunnis in connection with the October terror attack.
According to Ansar Iran, security agents raided Miskutan village in the city of Nikshahr and arrested four relatives of Ansar Iran members, named as Ghalandar Amiri, Muhammad Amin Amiri, Kheir Muhammad Naroui and Amin Naroui. The security services threatened to execute the four men if the terror attacks did not stop, Ansar Iran claimed.
As with past crackdowns in Sistan- Baluchistan, Iran’s state media did not report the arrests, although the Persianlanguage Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) said that the intelligence and security services had begun to arrest the relatives of opposition leaders in Nikshahr. The location of those arrested is unknown, the report said.
In his speech, Abdol-Hameed also criticized Iran for what he called the “vivid growth” of capital punishment in the country, noting that most executions take place in Sistan-Baluchistan.
His comments came after Iran executed three men in the province last week, after convicting them for a December 2010 bombing in Chabahar city that killed 39 Shi’ites, and for which Jundollah claimed responsibility.
The Iranian press named the three men as Yahya Charizehi, Abdoljalil Kahazehi and Abdolbasset Rigi.