Unrest in Iranian Sistan and Baluchestan

Ethno/sectarian tensions in Iran routinely manifest themselves in deadly violence in the country’s peripheral provinces that are home to millions of the Islamic Republic’s non-Persian and/or non-Shi’a citizens. Terrorism in Sistan and Baluchestan has exposed vulnerabilities in Iran’s security apparatus and also suggests that foreign actors might be exploiting local grievances in this province to further their own geopolitical aims against the backdrop of Sunni Arab states’ heightening fears of Iran’s ascendancy in the Middle East.
Giorgio Cafiero
Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, D.C.-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

On December 6, a car bomb exploded in the Iranian port city of Chabahar, located in the restive province of Sistan and Baluchestan where sectarian temperatures have risen in recent years. The attack targeted a police station, killing four and injuring at least 42. A group called Ansar al-Furqan claimed responsibility for the act of terrorism, which the Islamic Republic’s chief diplomat Javad Zarif accused foreigner entities of sponsoring and reminded all that in 2010 the authorities in Tehran had intercepted terrorists en route to Iran from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Indeed, such attacks from extremist groups have become much less rare recently, exposing Iran to Salafist-jihadist terror threats at a time when the country is grappling with a host of other challenges to its internal stability. Only six days after the September 22 attack against an Iranian military parade in the Province of Khuzestan left 29 dead, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) declared that it had killed four “terrorists” in Saravan city, along the Iranian-Pakistani border in Sistan and Baluchestan.

For years, social ills and economic challenges in Sistan and Baluchestan have fueled grievances among locals who frequently complain about sectarian discrimination, marginalization within the Islamic Republic, and water shortages. Dust storms have hit Sistan and Baluchestan, resulting in the closure of schools and shutting down of other state services. Furthermore, factions such as Jaish-al-Adl (the Army of Justice) and Jundallah have fatally clashed with IRGC forces throughout the province, exacerbating security dilemmas in Iran’s provincial territories—also including East Azerbaijan, Khuzestan, and Kurdistan—where the regime has long struggled to quell violent insurgencies in addition to peaceful demonstrations.

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), added new layers of friction to Saudi-Iranian relations last year when he vowed to ensure that any military confrontation between the Kingdom and Islamic Republic would occur on Iranian soil. Iranian officials pointed their fingers at Riyadh for the aforementioned September 22 attack in Ahvaz, frequently referencing MbS’s statement. The Tehran regime’s narrative about violence in Sistan and Baluchestan is largely informed by links (either real or perceived) between anti-Shi’a extremists in the Sunni-majority province and foreign governments—chiefly the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. A rich history of Baluch bonds with the Arab Gulf states contributes to this Iranian regime narrative about Riyadh- and Abu Dhabi-backed terror networks operating in Sistan and Baluchestan.

Whether there is truly a Saudi- and/or Emirati-Baluch alliance is unclear. Smoke and mirrors and different understandings of reality amid a war of narratives shape discussions about reported connections between the Riyadh and Abu Dhabi regimes and anti-Shi’a militants in Sistan and Baluchestan. Although the Trump administration and its close Gulf allies have not made support for militant groups in Sistan and Baluchestan part of their official policies for dealing with Iran, the exploitation of this volatile province’s sectarian tensions has been seen in Riyadh as a potential option for countering Iran.

Last year, Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, an Iranian analyst with Baluch roots, wrote a report for the Saudi Arabia-based International Institute for Iranian Studies (f.k.a. the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies) that called for Saudi “counter measures” against Iran’s projection of regional power that would rest on a Saudi-Baluch alliance in Iran. In his words, “it would be a formidable challenge, if not impossible, for the Iranian government to protect such long distances and secure [the geo-strategically-prized Port of Chabahar] in the face of widespread Baluch opposition, particularly if this opposition is supported by Iran’s regional adversaries and world powers.” At the time of the publication of Husseinbor’s study, Saudi militants had been receiving more financial support from the Kingdom via “anti-Shi’a, anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative madrassas or religious seminaries in Baluchestan.”

The activities of Sunni extremists across the border in Pakistan serves to further destabilize eastern Iran at a time when a host of economic problems has put further stress on the regime, as evidenced by protests across the country throughout 2017 and 2018. With the Crown Prince at the helm of Saudi foreign policy, considerations of Riyadh’s potential interests in further destabilizing Sistan and Baluchestan cannot be dismissed given the Kingdom’s geopolitical concerns about Iran’s Chabahar Port prospering and strengthening Tehran’s strategic position in the Gulf, West Asia, and Greater Indian Ocean. Doubtless, violent turmoil in Sistan and Baluchestan would negatively impact the prospects for Chabahar Port to become an Iranian success.

For Saudi Arabia, driving a wedge between Iran and India is a high priority, seeking to prevent the two countries from establishing closer ties in the energy sector. Of course, Riyadh will have high stakes in New Delhi’s future decision about Iran if/when the “temporary” exemption from US sanctions on Iran ends. Much like the Trump administration, the Saudis see the potential growth of Indian-Iranian energy trade as a grave threat as India’s economy offers Iran opportunities to circumvent the sanctions depending on largely political calculations made by the Indian leadership as the White House applies “maximum pressure” on Tehran.

Furthermore, shortly after the US’s current National Security Advisor assumed his current position, John Bolton, at the request of Steve Bannon, produced a draft that called for Washington to support “the democratic Iranian opposition” in Sistan and Baluchestan, as well as Pakistani Baluchestan on the other side of the international boundary. The plan also envisioned the US stepping up support for anti-regime elements within Iran’s Kurdish territories, where the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) has recently carried out scores of attacks. Said attacks have happened amid discussions among various Iranian Kurdish factions about strategies for uniting against the Tehran regime. Most recently, in Bolton’s September 25 speech at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, he stepped up rhetoric against Iran’s leadership.

“The ayatollahs have a choice to make,” he said. “We have laid out a path toward a bright and prosperous future for all of Iran, one that is worthy of the Iranian people, who have long suffered under the regime’s tyrannical rule.” U.S.-Iranian relations continue to worsen, especially now that the Trump administration has re-imposed all sanctions on Iran that Obama had lifted following the JCPOA’s implementation.

As the Trump administration further isolates Washington from its NATO allies, along with Russia and China, on the Iranian nuclear file, the White House is aligning US foreign policy vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic much more closely with Saudi Arabia. The President and his inner circle view the alleged Iranian threat through a Saudi lens. Tehran has interpreted Trump and his outgoing ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s responses to both the Islamic State in Tehran in 2017 and the Ahvaz attack in September as tacit, if not outright, US approval for Sunni extremist terrorism in Iran targeting the regime and its security apparatus.

Although the true nature of the US and Saudi governments’ relations with such anti-regime groups in Sistan and Baluchestan is unclear, top officials in Washington, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi seem to be, at minimum, eyeing such an alliance with militant Sunnis in the Iranian province as a card that can be used to weaken or destabilize Iran in order to force the Islamic Republic to devote more resources toward internal problems and fewer toward Iranian adventurism abroad.