For decades, the Islamic Republic has regarded the Baluchi people and Baluchistan as an irritation at best, a serious security threat at worst. The tensions and discrimination have once again come to the fore: On Monday, February 22, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC ) fired on Baluch fuel smugglers at the Askan border crossing in the city of Saravan near Pakistan, killing at least 10 people and injuring several others.
Following this incident, the internet was severely disrupted in several cities and towns in Sistan and Baluchistan, and was even completely cut off for a period. According to Baluchi activists, clashes in the province are ongoing, and the exact number of dead, wounded, and detained has not yet been determined.
In the meantime, Baluchistan's social and economic deprivation, which has been raised by analysts, experts and campaigners, amounts to a humanitarian catastrophe.
Many years ago, during the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Ali Khamenei, today the leader of the Islamic Republic, was exiled to the city of Iranshahr in Baluchistan. Later he referred to the deprivations of this region, and claimed that the 1979 revolution had changed the lives of the people of this region.
But four decades later, Baluchistan remains one of the worse provinces in terms of poverty, children dropping out of school, child marriage and other types of social malaise. At the same time, Iran’s security services have a strong presence in the region and the extent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ influence reflects the approach Khamenei and the Islamic Republic has taken with regard to Baluchistan and the Baluchis.
In December 1977, Ali Khamenei was exiled to Iranshahr. He writes in his memoir that, while there, in addition to getting to know the youth of the area, he had expanded his circle of contacts, traveled to different parts of the region, and even lectured at Friday prayers. There are videos of him in Iranshahr that, according to his official website, are due to be shown in a documentary entitled The Hope of Tired Souls. In the trailer for the documentary, Khamenei's voice can be heard. "As a religious student from outside, it was very difficult for me to communicate. Everyone feels homesick away from home, life and friends. But I did not feel homesick in 1977,” he said.
The images used in the trailer show children living in deprivation and poverty, traditional shelters called kapars built on dried-up land, and roads that are mostly ruined. These are images depicting the life of the Baluchis today: the same broken roads, children looking just as deprived, and the kapars for shelter. And yet Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly contradicted the truth about Baluchistan during his years of leadership. For example, despite condemning the province to years of constant neglect and regular discrimination, during a meeting with members of the National Congress of Martyrs of Sistan and Baluchistan Province in February 2018, he said the Baluchi people had many talents that had been ignored during the Pahlavi era, suggesting that he was now doing what he could to acknowledge those talents.
Khamenei criticized the situation for the Baluchis during the Pahlavi and Ghajar eras, and claimed that Islamic Republic officials began paying proper attention to the region after the revolution: "After the revolution, the presidents visited, the officials visited, everyone visited the region; they went to all these cities, they even went to the villages. The distance was far. During that [previous] period, people were ignored … When one enters these cities today, one feels that the people are really close to the Islamic Republic."
On March 2003, during a meeting with young people and students in the province, the Leader emphasized how much the Baluchis had progressed after the 1979 revolution, and pointed to what he described as indicators of this growth and development: "The attention of the authorities, the strong connection between the people and the authorities, and the work that has been done -- the many activities, the list of which is very long — go back to after the revolution."
Another example of these contradictions came in November 1991 during the Leader’s meeting with clerics from his office representing Sunni affairs. Khamenei claimed that Baluchistan suffered its darkest days of poverty during the Pahlavi regime: "No roads, no water, no electricity. Not a cooling device in summer,” he said. “The people there were so deprived. When we go to offer the Iranians their rights, we do not ask them their religion. No, he is our compatriot and he must benefit from the rights of fellow citizens and should live in this country. He has to pay something, he has to do something and has a salary. But he has the right to security, the right to life, the right to work, the right to education and culture.
The True Picture
But is that really the case? These are just a few examples of Ali Khamenei's remarks about Baluchistan and his memories of his exile. But to get the reality of life Baluchistan and Baluchi people today, it’s important to look at rigorously-researched social and economic indicators, and the actual imposition deprivation and a heavy security presence has on their lives.
Based on official statistics produced by the Islamic Republic, IranWire has outlined the true levels and impact of poverty in Baluchistan, and the fact that people have had to resort to fuel smuggling to survive. For example, the province of Sistan and Baluchistan had an insignificant share of Iran's GDP during the period 2000 to 2017, fluctuating from 0.9 percent to 1.4 percent, and never reaching 1.5 percent. Other data showed that in 2019, the average income of urban and rural households in the province was the lowest among urban and rural households in Iran. On March 2020, the average inflation rate was 34.8 percent, but the same rate for Sistan and Baluchistan province reached 37.1 percent.
There are other indicators too. In August 2020, Nasim Online reported that out of the 20 regions with the highest poverty rates in Iran, 14 are in rural areas and cities in Sistan and Baluchistan, where the poverty rate is between 75 and 90 percent.
In January 2021, the Iranian Labour News Agency reported that 141,000 children and adolescents had dropped out of school in the province, and there have been similar statistics since 2014.
The report also highlighted a severe lack of job training in the region.
On August 2019, Fatemeh Fazel, deputy governor for Women and Family affairs of Sistan and Baluchistan province, said during an interview with the Islamic Republic News Agency that children in this province rank third highest when it comes to child marriages in Iran.
Furthermore, on January 2019, Ahmad Ezatian, a nutrition improvement program director for the Ministry of Health and Medical Education, said at least 12,000 children in the province are suffering from malnutrition.
In addition to these indicators — and there are other examples to support their credibility — there are the testimonies of prisoners of conscience who have been deported to cities in Baluchistan. In 2020, IranWire spoke to a number of political prisoners, whose stories shared certain similarities: they had all been politically active and all suffered from poor economic and social deprivation. They spoke of a heavy military presence in the province, the lack of basic facilities such as piped-in water, schools, jobs and even safe shelter to live in. They spoke of a poor economic environment and said many of their children were without appropriate shoes and clothes. One prisoner said children in the area enjoy swimming when the river flows, but for the other three seasons, when the riverbed is dry, they pass their time playing with dead fish.
The livelihood of the people of this region is tied to fuel smuggling. They live in poverty, and suffer from deprivation and lack of jobs.
Anam Dehvari, a Baluchi activist who was born in Saravan, told IranWire that children drop out of school and turn to work: carrying fuel across the border. Even though this is essentially the only livelihood available to them, the government in Tehran dismisses it as smuggling, while offering no other prospects.
The Power of the Guards
Exacerbating matters is the fact that in recent years the Revolutionary Guards Corps has been primarily responsible for border security in the region, and has established a joint base in the province with other military and security forces.
The Guards have promised to cure poverty in the province through a scheme called the Razzagh Plan. Its aim is to create official fuel outlets, which the government says will stop the smuggling of "national wealth" and be profitable for border residents.
But Abdollah Aref, director of the Baluchi Activists Campaign, has a different view. According to him, the plan only covers residents living within a 20-kilometer radius of the border, while fuel smuggling is the main business across the province. "In fact, the Revolutionary Guards want to monopolize fuel conveying and sales, thereby circumventing international sanctions and selling fuel illegally to Pakistan."
Political activists in Iran have also spoken out against this issue. In an audio clip obtained by IranWire, reformist political activist and former member of the Iranian parliament Faezeh Hashemi said the crisis in Sistan and Baluchistan has worsened as the result of harmful meddling from the central government, and from the government’s monopolistic view, which she described as a sort of mantra: "Everything must be ours. People have no rights. Every right belongs to we who run the country.”
Hashemi also implicitly said that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is well aware of the recent clashes in the province, but refuses to issue an order to stop the crackdown on protesters: "They all make these decisions together — so who is to issue such an order and resolve the problem? The national interests [are not about] the people's rights, living conditions and the economic situation. The people are not a priority. The only priority is to maintain power.” She said the current leadership is absolutely focused on the “I” rather than the “we.”
The Islamic Republic's approach to Sistan and Baluchistan since the revolution has set the crisis on course, compounded by the fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has driven this policy and also has control over Iran’s most powerful security institution, the Revolutionary Guards. This concentration of power and discrimination has resulted in the humanitarian catastrophe in the province.
It is useful to return to the Supreme Leader’s words during his exile in Iranshahr. "Our society, our country, our environment, our people, Shias and followers of Ali, are so close to the Alawite rulings. What justice and freedom of expression our society enjoys. All thoughtful and informed people have the right to think and are allowed to talk. The point is that people have grievances, they protest, they say things. All Muslims need to know at the very least, even if they do not protest, what the protesters are saying."
But Khamenei, who once spoke from exile and now leads his country, neither has an ear to hear the protests nor an eye to see the massacre. In recent months alone, there has been a wave of executions of Baluchis. Now Saravan and other cities in Baluchistan are marred by unrest, and it is not yet known how many people have been killed, wounded, and detained. Ali Khamenei seems to have learned to impose deprivation and condemn the Baluchi people from the very people who deprived and condemned him, and who sent him into exile.