Copyright © 1994-97, by the Middle East Data Project, Inc. All rights reserved.
Iran's eastern province of Sistan va Balouchistan, which lies along the Pakistani border, has long been a hotbed of opposition to the Tehran regime, and Balouchi Sunnis voted massively against the hand-picked candidate of the ruling Shiite clergy, Hojjat-ol eslam Nateq Nouri in the presidential elections.
A low intensity insurgency has been raging in Balouchistan for several years, which The Iran Brief has reportedly on regularly. The official media in Tehran obliquely refers to the fighting as armed clashes between the Law Enforcement Forces and "bandits," "drug-smugglers," and "thugs," to disguise the true nature of the conflict. In its effort to quell the rebellion, the Rev. Guards have stationed several crack brigades in Balouchi cities, and have tracked down leaders of the Balouchi Sunni community and assassinated them inside Iran and in neighboring Pakistan.
Last year, a leading Sunnite cleric, Molavi Abdulmalek Mollahzadeh, was gunned down by hitmen hired by Tehran as he was leaving his house in Karachi (see TIB 3/4/96). To better understand the conflict in Iranian Balouchistan, and the opposition of Balouchi Sunnis to the regime in Tehran, The Iran Brief spoke with Molavi Ali Akbar Mollahzadeh, the younger brother of the slain Balouchi leader, during a recent visit he made to Washington, DC.
The Iran Brief: How long has this conflict been going on?
Molavi Ali Akbar Mollahzadeh: Almost since the start of the Iranian Revolution. In the beginning, most people thought this was a real revolution, a revolution of the people, and that there might be freedom in Iran. So when [Ayatollah] Khomeini called my father , Molavi Abdulaziz [who was recognized as the most prominent Sunni Muslim cleric in Iran at the time - eds], he agreed to go to Tehran, and visited with Khomeini every two or three months, since at the time he was the leader of the Islamic Unity Party. Very soon, however, there were problems, and the new regime began killing people in Balouchistan. My father would ask Khomeini, why are you doing this? But Khomeini would just say, this is the Revolution, just be patient. As the new constitution was being drafted, my father assailed Khomeini for the many anti-Sunni clauses, which forbid Sunnis from becoming President or from other high office. Khomeini said he could do nothing about it, since it was being debated by the Constituent Assembly. In the end, my father and the other Balouchi deputy refused to sign the Constitution. The only other Sunni member of the Constituent Assembly, Abdulrahman Qassemlou, was head of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and was already under siege by government forces in Kurdistan, so he never attended the vote. And that began the break between my father and Khomeini, because Khomeini refused to solve the problems of our people.
The Iran Brief: What was your response to the new constitution?
Molavi Ali Akbar: Six months later, Sunni leaders from Kurdistan, Balouchistan, and Khorassan, set up a new party known as Shami, which is short for Shora-ye Markaz-e al Sunaat, to unite all Sunnis against the government and lobby for our rights. But six months after that, we were closed down by the government on charges that we were backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. They jailed my brother and 400 other people, and closed our bank accounts. They arrested another other leader of the movement, Ala'ama Ahmad Muftizadeh, who is a Kurd, and kept him in jail for ten years along with many of his students and followers. After that, there were various attempts at armed insurrection in the mid-1980s, in particular one group, founded by Mohammad Khan Lashari, known as Jumbesh Mujahedin Balouchistan, that received money from Iraq. But as clerics, we have always argued for non-violent struggle, and the respect for human rights.
The Iran Brief: You believe that Khomeini actually tricked your father...
Molavi Ali Akbar: When my father was attending the Constituent Assembly in 1980, he frequently spoke with Khomeini about Sunni rights. There were at the time some 500,000 Sunnis living in Tehran, but they had no mosque and were praying in a Pakistani school. So my father asked Khomeini for land to build a mosque. Khomeini agreed to give him 10,000 square meters of land just behind the Tehran Hilton, and announced the gift in all the Tehran newspapers. But when my father went to the Tehran municipality to get building permits, they said they had never received the order. He kept going back week after week, for more than six months, and still they said they had never received the order from Khomeini. How can you believe such people when they lie like that? Today, there are 1 million Sunnis living in Tehran, and still they have no mosque. How can this regime claim to be the leader of the entire Islamic world when Iranian Sunni Muslims have no place where they can even pray?
The Iran Brief: What do Balouchis and Iranian Sunnis want?
Molavi Ali Akbar: We are Iranians by passport and by nation, and so we want our rights as Iranians. We want our rights in Balouchistan, in Kurdistan, in Khorassan. We want to be allowed to work, to have our own people in the police. We don't want them to bring people from Tehran who are enemies of our people as police and to run the entire administration. They give all the jobs to their own people. By the Constitution, if you are not a Shia you cannot be a Minister. If they make a factory, they give the job to their relatives and to their own people. They bring in hundreds of thousands of people, to make them a majority in Balouchistan and in Kurdistan. They are not actually sending Balouchis out, but they are pushing them out by these discriminatory policies. There are now 200,000 Balouchis working in Gulf countries, because they can't get jobs in Balouchistan.
The Iran Brief: How does that discrimination work?
Molavi Ali Akbar: If a Balouchi wants to open a shop, he must first go to the government and get his political beliefs thoroughly examined by the Pasdaran and the intelligence services. They ask: have you done anything for the Islamic Republic? Did you fight in the Iraq-Iran war? Do you believe in the Velayat-e faghih? Sunnis don't believe in the Velayat-e faghih - it is against our beliefs, and because we don't believe in taqiyah, which we consider to be lying, we must answer the truth. The result is that Sunnis don't get the permit to open the shop, they don't get jobs, they don't get places in the university - unless they agree to become informers for the intelligence services. Out of 5,000 students at Balouchistan university in Zahedan, there are only 10 or 15 Balouchis. Even the education law of the Islamic Republic says that 75% should be Balouchis - and now, 99% are non-Balouchi. They treat us like the Untouchables in India.
The Iran Brief: The Tehran government frequently accuses Balouchis of involvement in drug smuggling, and uses this to justify a very heavy police and Pasdaran presence in Balouchistan. Are these allegations true?
Molavi Ali Akbar: There are no drugs grown in Balouchistan. They all come from Afghanistan. Balouchistan has become a transit route for Afghan drugs en route to Turkey and Europe. The scale is very large: Maybe $60 billion or $70 billion per year. But most Balouchis have nothing to do with this traffic. Those who are involved have been pushed into it by the Tehran government. The Rev. Guards and the intelligence services encourage Balouchis to go into business with them.
The Iran Brief: So a lot of the drug dealers have government connections? Molavi Ali Akbar: Yes. They are offered a share in the profits by the Pasdaran and the SAVAMA. They load the drugs at the Afghan border onto Pasdaran Land Cruisers, and pay protection money to the Pasdars to allow safe passage.
The Iran Brief: What about the clashes? Molavi Ali Akbar: This is to show the world that the Islamic Republic is fighting against drugs. And it is also to crack down on dealers who refuse to give a share of the take to the Pasdaran. Informers tell the Pasdaran that a convoy is coming from one of these people - and that's when they attack. They also use the drug trade as an excuse to kill Balouchis. We have seen intelligence and Pasdaran officers handing out drugs for free to young Balouchis in our villages. We have caught them red-handed, and turned them over to the local police. Before we have even left the police station, they are released. But when they catch Balouchis, they keep them for years, or hang them. Why do they never catch drug dealers in central Iran? Or in Azerbaijan, when the drugs are going over the border into Turkey? Because they want to kill Balouchis.
Where do you think the Islamic Republic gets its money? It is only earning $18 billion or so per year from oil sales. The drug trade is a tremendous source of revenue for the Tehran government. This is not the Balouchis fault; we are just in the way. They are using us - and then using drugs as an excuse to kill us.
The Iran Brief: What can the U.S. do, if anything, to help Iranians and Balouchis secure their rights?
Molavi Ali Akbar: First, get other countries to stop trading with Iran, to stop helping them to earn money. And then, stop the movement of Iranian diplomats and undercover agents throughout the world. Stop their terrorist networks, their intelligence networks. Shut down their embassies. The regime is using Islamic centers and mosques as their eyes and ears in the United States. They are using the freedom that you have here to intimidate people, just as they do in Iran and in other countries. And then, we would like the U.S. to make the Arab countries understand that these people are against them, too. They are working against them in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, in Syria, and in Lebanon. In Iraq, they want to topple the government. If all these countries adopt the Islamic Republic's policies, it will bring death to the people of the region.
Look at Saudi Arabia. They say Saudi citizens carried out the bombing in Dhahran; but where does a Saudi learn about bombing techniques? He learns it in Lebanon, in areas controlled by Iran. In the 1980s, I used to fly frequently to Iran from the Gulf. I would board a Saudia plane in Jeddah with Saudi Shias. We'd stop in Damascus to change planes, and then I would see the same persons reboard the Iran Air flight to Tehran, but now they would be using different passports. Who do you think was helping them with false passports and new identities and money?
I don't know what the Americans are looking for in terms of evidence, but it is very clear to us. Iran is the one providing the training and the money for international terrorism, and the Saudis just react in fear. We have a saying: if you are afraid of a lion, do you think this will prevent him from eating you? What good does it do the Saudis to be afraid of Iran when day and night they are working against the Saudis. Instead, the Saudis should act.
The Iran Brief: You have become an outspoken opponent of the regime in Tehran. Are you afraid for your family?
Molavi Ali Akbar: What can I do? This is a regime that has no respect for human rights, but we have to take a stand. They tried to assassinate me in 1991 in Pakistan, mistaking me for my brother. Then last year, they finally succeeded in killing my brother, Abdulmalek, in Karachi... Since then, they have been following me, first in Pakistan, then in Dubai. I finally left Dubai because I was told by friends in the Interior ministry there that the Tehran regime had sent a team of killers after me, and that they would not be able to protect me. I have been never called for violent struggle against the regime, but have continued to ask that they respect international standards of human rights. So why do they come after me?
They call themselves Muslims, and yet they kill people for supporting human rights. There is nothing Islamic about this. But they know that I am the last one left from my family, and that our family has a very good name in Balouchistan. They are afraid because 15 million Sunnis in Iran still remember the name of my father, Abdulaziz. They are afraid I will start a movement that will mobilize Iranian Sunnis to oppose them, that I will use my father's name to lead our people to freedom.