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Iran is among the Middle East’s most diverse countries in terms of ethnicity, language, and religion. Because Iran consolidated as a nation before the rise of ethno-nationalist states, it has a solid identity as a country and need not fear the devolution into ethnic components as occurred in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Pakistan, and Sudan. That is not to say that all Iranians are happy to live in the Islamic Republic. Discord is especially rife in the southeastern province of Baluchistan va Sistan, and the northwestern Kurdish region, where ethnic unrest mixes with sectarian strife in these Sunni-dominated and poorly developed regions.
Sectarian tension flares periodically. In 1993 regime radicals seized and, in some cases, razed several Sunni mosques. A number of Baluchi Sunni leaders have died under suspicious circumstances. In March 1996, for example, Iranian operatives killed Molavi Abdul Malek, an Iranian Baluch Sunni cleric, in Karachi, Pakistan. Waves of terrorist bombings struck the region in 2000, and again in 2005. Perhaps the most effective attack against the regime occurred two years later, when a bomb destroyed a bus carrying Islamic Revolutionary Guardsmen. On 23 February 2010 Iranian fighter jets forced down a Kyrgyzstan Airways flight from Dubai carrying Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of Jundullah, a Baluch separatist movement conducting terrorism inside Iranian Baluchistan. After a trial and public confession in which Rigi claimed he was an American agent—a claim dismissed by the U.S. government—he was executed.
If Tehran believed that Rigi’s capture would end Baluchi unrest, it were wrong. The assassination of Musa Nouri Ghalenou followed the killing of 14 Iranian border guards and the capture of three in the Sistan va Baluchistan province on October 25. The government responded to that attack by hanging 16 Baluch the following day on allegations of terrorism. While killing Ghalenou might appear simple revenge as tit-for-tat violence and terrorism continues, the fact that his murder occurred in broad daylight in Zabol, one of the province’s major towns, suggests that Baluchistan is increasingly lawless and that the Iranian central government continues to have trouble controlling the country’s periphery, despite its rhetoric of unprecedented strength. Baluchi authorities likely will not take kindly to the government’s subsequent tendency to conflate Baluchi Sunni activists with Al Qaeda.
Whenever an attack occurs in Iran, the Iranian press initially speculates widely but then, as an official line is formed in Tehran—usually within one or two days—the theories coalesce into one line. The Ghalenou murder is no different. Despite ample suspects among the drug runners and militant Sunni activists who traverse the Iranian-Pakistani border, Iranian officials decided to officially blame the United States and Israel. This suggests that, despite the diplomatic outreach accompanying the nuclear negotiations, old habits die hard in certain circles of the Iranian government.
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