The role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in suppressing recent protests in Sistan and Baluchistan has been very prominent, Baluch activists say.
The unrest began on Monday, February 22 after an incident on the Saravan border in which local sources reported that members of the IRGC had opened fire on fuel smugglers. Bloody clashes have continued since then and into today.
What are the Revolutionary Guards doing in Sistan and Baluchistan? And why have they been unable to resolve the situation?
The protests in Sistan and Baluchistan began amid the implementation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ controversial Razzagh Plan. Despite claims by the Islamic Republic that the unrest has now come to an end, images and videos emerging from cities in the province indicate that popular protests have continued throughout the week.
One of the videos published online on Thursday, February 25 depicted Baluch women and children who had apparently been shot at with rubber bullets. The military also used rubber bullets to disperse protesters in front of the Saravan governor’s office earlier in the week.
Meanwhile, a general strike has entered its second day in the bazaars of Iranshahr, Zahedan and Jakigur, while internet outages continue to cause widespread confusion about how the week’s events have taken place on the ground.
The Baloch Activists' Campaign has so far confirmed the deaths of two citizens, Hassan Mohammad Zehi and Mohammad Saleh Moghaddami, during the demonstrations. The unrest itself was sparked by the shooting of a group of fuel smugglers, reportedly by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, on the Saravan border on Monday. The number of people killed and wounded in this incident was said to be at least 15, but has not yet been confirmed.
Insecurity Sparked by Security Presence
Early reports of the shooting drew attention to the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Base in the context of its clashes with local Baluchis. Back in 2014 the Revolutionary Guards had been handed the task of securing the Saravan border. This decision was taken after some 14 border guards had been killed and five others abducted by the Jaish al-Adl jihadist group, which operates in the area. Mohammad Ali Jafari, then-commander-in-chief of the IRGC, travelled to the region and announced that the mission to secure the 300km border zone had been assigned to the IRGC Ground Force’s Quds Base.
In fact, ever since the IRGC’s formation it has had a presence in Sistan and Baluchistan. In the early years after the Islamic Revolution, IRGC forces in the region had travelled across from neighboring provinces including Kerman and Yazd. During the Iran-Iraq war, too, the Sistan and Baluchistan battalions sent to the frontlines comprised brigades and divisions from other provinces, including the 41st Sarollah Brigade of Kerman and the 37th Nour Brigade of Khuzestan
The Revolutionary Guards had a strong presence on the border of Baluchistan from 1979 to 1989. Between 1989 and 1991, the security of the province became the purview of the Islamic Revolution Committee, but the IRGC’s responsibility resumed from 1992. The Quds Base was established in the south-eastern region, and even now, while the police force does have a border guard mission, the Revolutionary Guards are also ever-present on the borders.
What is the Quds Base, and Who Does it Comprise?
The Quds Base is officially tasked with ensuring “security” in Sistan and Baluchistan as well as in province of Hormozgan and parts of South Khorasan. It was initially formed from the 41st Sarollah Division of Kerman and the brigades of Malek, 33 Al-Mahdi, 2 Birjand, and Salman in Zahedan, but its composition has changed over time.
The Salman Corps of Sistan and Baluchistan Province operates as part of this headquarters, though it falls under a different command. This unit was formed under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jafari in 2007, as part of the then-plan to create a provincial guard corps. It encompasses some Basij units including, since 1981, a “nomadic Basij” division.
This provincial corps, like other such local arms of the IRGC, is active in all areas of public life. Its activities have included arresting government officials on “corruption” charges, the location and confiscation of illegal gas canisters, crackdowns on social media activists, and the publication of the journal Muslim Baluch Child. It also carries out local construction projects, building houses, health centers and roads, to increase its social influence.
Most of the armed forces based in Sistan and Baluchestan are Shia Muslims. But in 2012 it was announced that the 300 members from the province's Sunni population were to be officially hired as guards. Almost all the commanders of Salman Corps in Sistan and Baluchestan province were born in other provinces, such as Khorasan, Hormozgan, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, and were later deployed to this important strategic location. Ahmad Shafaei, who was appointed as the new commander of the IRGC in Sistan and Baluchestan province on November 6, 2016, was previously the acting commander of the IRGC in Razavi Khorasan.
The importance of the Quds Base in the southeast was such the then-acting commander of the IRGC Ground Force, Nour Ali Shoushtari, was appointed as its head for a time. In 2009, he and Rajab Ali Mohammadzadeh, then-commander of Salman Corps of Sistan and Baluchistan, were both killed in an explosion enacted by Jaish al-Adl while attending a meeting of tribal leaders and elders in the province’s Pishin District.
In addition to the Salman Corps, the Quds Base has established a number of other combatant units in cities around Sistan and Baluchistan. All in all there are 20 main bases and dozens of other smaller ones. Among them is the Shahid Mir Hosseini base, which operates in the Tripartite area: the point where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan intersect, and where some of the most notable acts of armed opposition groups in Sistan and Baluchistan have been carried out in the past.
The commander of the Shahid Mir Hosseini base is also the commander of the IRGC Ground Force’s 110 Ranger and 110 Salman Farsi brigades. Among the base’s key activities are oversight of 150km of the border, and the construction of 100km of local canals and embankments.
Despite the IRGC’s bristling and multi-faceted presence in the area, Sistan and Baluchistan still faces a welter of security issues. Apart from the fragile state of neighboring countries' borders, discrimination against Sunnis and widespread poverty have been cited as the root causes: key factors that the IRGC has so far been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to tackle head-on.
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