The plight of the Balochi people is indicative of how the Iranian regime has neglected the human development of the Iranian people, particularly the non-Persian ethnic minorities. Instead of investing in human development, the regime has created and financed proxies to spearhead its expansionist policies in the region. The Iranian regime has always maintained that its real threat is external, but this is not true: The real threat to it is internal, with millions of people facing deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, creating a ripe atmosphere for political challenges to the regime. Writes Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Sistan and Balochistan province is among the poorest in Iran and it faces regular sandstorms and droughts. The regime’s environmentally destructive policies and negligence have aggravated the province’s dire conditions and have worsened the living conditions.
Desperation and a lack of employment opportunities have forced many Balochis in the Sunni-majority region to engage in cross-border fuel smuggling as a means of earning a living. Barely a day passes without reports emerging on social media from human rights groups and activists mentioning the death of Balochi fuel smugglers because of the extrajudicial “shoot-to-kill” policy employed by Iran’s security forces and border guards.
Last Tuesday, the Balochi Activists’ Campaign (BAC) posted a video showing troops from the regime’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) firing on unarmed civilian Balochi fuel smugglers at the Eskan border outpost near the town of Saravan, with at least 10 killed and many more wounded in the unprovoked attack.
In response, protests broke out among the long-suffering residents of Saravan, who stormed the local governor’s office. The following day, the local Balochi population in Kurin Sarjangal, a suburb of Zahedan city, launched a widespread strike and attacked the IRGC’s bases in Zahedan, setting fire to vehicles and destroying the barracks. Dozens of protesters were reportedly arrested.
According to the BAC’s report, the killings took place after the IRGC sealed off the Iranian-Pakistan border and dug huge holes to obstruct the movement of Balochi fuel smugglers.
These extrajudicial killings sparked further protests among the impoverished Balochi locals, who are reliant on cross-border trade to survive. They gathered in front of the local IRGC base, demanding that the border be reopened and travel allowed. The IRGC’s response was to open fire on the unarmed protesters, killing and wounding dozens.
Fuel smuggling is already a contentious subject among the Balochi population, which is forced to smuggle fuel or other goods simply to stay alive due to the Iranian regime’s neglect and repression, as is the case with Iran’s other non-Persian ethnic minorities. Most Balochis in the rugged terrain of the border area live in horrendous conditions, with anger at the regime growing among the people due to growing poverty, deprivation and brutal repression. Balochis live hand-to-mouth and are randomly targeted by the IRGC to ensure the regime’s control over them.
This grim picture is backed up by evidence from official statistics and reports by humanitarian organizations, which note that fuel smuggling is the only way for many Balochi families in the region to earn enough money to survive. The Sistan and Balochistan province is blessed with natural resources; unfortunately, however, these are seized by the regime, which deploys military forces to assert its control and crush dissent.
The fuel smugglers from Sistan and Balochistan use different routes to traverse the borders. All routes are extremely dangerous and the terrain is difficult. In addition, both the sea and land border routes are heavily guarded by armed IRGC personnel, who do not hesitate to kill fuel smugglers without warning. For example, to smuggle to Pakistan, the Chabahar sea route or the overland route via the towns of Sarbaz and Saravan are favorable transit points. But the terrain between Saravan and Sarbaz is mountainous, with peaks and valleys making fuel smuggling an arduous and often life-threatening experience. Locals say, sarcastically, that smuggling fuel across the border from there is like “trading fuel with Azrael (the Angel of Death).”
The BAC report starkly explains the common and terrible result of the zero-sum game these fuel smugglers are forced to play. It states: “In this situation, the border regime forces shoot at them, blowing up their cars (due to the fuel they are carrying) and causing the poor bodies of these desperate people to be burned alive, left charred beyond recognition for their bereaved families.”
For centuries, the people of Sistan and Balochistan made their living from farming, hunting and fishing, as well as trading their beautiful handicrafts with their Pakistani and Afghan neighbors. The regime’s environmentally devastating policies, including massive deforestation and the construction of dams across the Helmand River, which flows to the region from Afghanistan, have wreaked havoc on the region’s ecosystem, leading to devastating droughts, as well as destroying agriculture and the once-abundant wildlife.
Alim Yarmohammadi, the representative for Zahedan in Iran’s parliament, said recently that the Balochi people of the province live in atrocious conditions, being forced to eat the meat of cats, dogs and ravens for survival, with 75 percent of them suffering from malnutrition. Yarmohammadi added that the villages of Sistan and Balochistan lack potable water supplies, with residents also suffering due to a lack of bread and the spread of lethal diseases. These dreadful conditions have resulted in severe medical conditions related to the digestive and nervous systems. The lawmaker warned that the human suffering would worsen due to the ongoing drought that has gripped the province.
In a separate interview, Yarmohammadi stated that the people of Sistan and Balochistan now face a new crisis: The need to work, despite concerns about rising coronavirus disease (COVID-19) levels in the area, due to abject poverty, which leaves them unable to afford even basic protective face masks. “Given that around 74 percent of the people of Sistan and Balochistan province live below the poverty line of food security and have no stable employment, they often work daily and are paid daily,” he noted, adding: “Despite the fact that about 60 percent of the people of Sistan and Balochistan cannot afford to buy a mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic, our request to provide free masks has not been implemented.”
Another local official, Aziz Sarani, the representative of Sistan and Balochistan at the Supreme Provincial Council, warned that the current drought has worsened the already severe malnutrition problem among the region’s people, with many local children forced to go to school without having breakfast. Sarani said: “There are people who haven’t tasted meat for months and live merely on bread.”
The plight of the Balochi people is indicative of how the Iranian regime has neglected the human development of the Iranian people, particularly the non-Persian ethnic minorities. Instead of investing in human development, the regime has created and financed proxies to spearhead its expansionist policies in the region. The Iranian regime has always maintained that its real threat is external, but this is not true: The real threat to it is internal, with millions of people facing deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, creating a ripe atmosphere for political challenges to the regime.
The regime’s only response is to use force against its own people, as seen with the IRGC firing at and killing unarmed Balochis, rather than crafting policies to alleviate the developmental concerns of minorities in particular and the Iranian people in general.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah).