Iran’s impoverished province of Baluchistan has been disproportionately hit by protests since September. It has paid an exorbitant price in terms of deaths, casualties, and arrests in the crackdown against the “Women, Life, Freedom” protest movement. In fact, it was the killing of 19 individuals in this province on Sept. 19, 2022, that in many ways fueled the ongoing nationwide protests which began after the death of Masha Amini.
Though the recent protests have not yet had any sectarian drivers and have remained focused on despotism, this could change. Iran has largely escaped the sectarian conflict that has plagued so many Middle Eastern states over the last two decades, but Baluchistan, a Sunni-majority province in a Shiite-majority country, is uniquely poised as potential trigger for sectarian tensions.
Molavi Abdul Hamid, the most prominent cleric from the province and a Sunni, is opting to confront Iran’s supreme leader, a Shiite, head on. He has used his pulpit to repeatedly take jabs at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling his rule out of touch and characterizing him as ruthless. This is an unprecedented and dangerous situation because Tehran’s mishandling of the grievances of the ethnic Baluch could create sectarian fault lines. Much is uncertain at this point, but the ramifications of this showdown will not be limited to Baluchistan.
The people of Baluchistan are protesting not because the central government in Tehran is Shiite-centric, but because it is politically repressive and incompetent in delivering basic services to all citizens, regardless of their sectarian identity. But Tehran has opted to depict the volatile situation in the province as manufactured by foreign enemies who are intent on fueling sectarian conflict inside Iran’s borders. According to this narrative, local agitators paid by foreign intelligence services instigated and led the protests.
The culpability of foreign enemies was a specter first raised in the case of Abdul Vahid Rigi, a Sunni cleric in the province killed in December. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi claimed that an order to kill Rigi had been “issued outside of Iran.” Although the regime had earlier announced that it had arrested three individuals for the killing of Rigi, Vahidi later claimed that Iran’s intelligence services “are still investigating” the case.
As of today, there is no clarity about who killed Rigi or whether he played a role in the protests in Baluchistan. Nonetheless, many in the Iranian opposition’s diaspora suspect Rigi might have been killed by the regime in order to intimidate other Sunni clerics in Iran, including in Baluchistan and Kurdistan, who might want to join the nationwide protest movement. The opposition also suspects that the regime could have killed Rigi as a pretext for arguing that foreign enemies of Iran want to create Sunni-Shiite tensions inside the country, with the ultimate aim of discrediting the entire protest movement.
Only about 10 percent of Iran’s 85 million population are Sunnis, and a sectarian agenda has not been central to the demands of Sunni protesters. Nevertheless, the regime has been busy manufacturing the narrative that foreign enemies opted to fuel sectarianism in Baluchistan as a way to launch a broader destabilizing campaign intended to topple the Islamic Republic. Rigi’s son was even put on national television to claim that his father had urged for calm when protests had erupted, which was why unnamed “enemies” had him killed.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had earlier called the killing of Rigi the act of “mercenaries working for the enemy.” The message is hard to miss: The regime will wield the threat of an outbreak of Sunni-Shiite tensions in Baluchistan to coerce anti-regime protesters nationwide to stop protesting.
By constantly pointing to the dangers of an unintended “Syriazation” of Iran—that is, a descent into civil war like in Syria after 2011—officials in Tehran are banking on fearmongering as an instrument to put an end to the popular protests. These have ebbed in recent weeks but are likely to resurface at any moment, given deep discontent in the country.
Tehran will also very likely continue to link Rigi’s alleged killer to anti-regime political groups and their foreign backers. For many years, the Iranian regime has accused Gulf Arab states of financially backing militant Sunni groups operating in Baluchistan province. This line of attack has strengthened during the last few months. As Iran’s ethnic Baluch have protested, Tehran has again pointed the finger at Arab Gulf states. For example, the Ministry of Intelligence, under the leadership of Esmail Khatib, has accused unnamed Arab Gulf states to be behind the killing of Rigi.
There has been no evidence presented to substantiate such claims, but the logic behind such accusations is very much clear. This narrative strengthens Tehran’s claims that dozens of foreign intelligence services have been involved in a vast conspiracy to bring down the Islamic Republic through a destabilization campaign.
Another prominent Sunni religious leader in Baluchistan who has come under attack by the Khamenei regime in the last four months of protests is Molavi Abdul Hamid. He has been particularly critical of the regime, denouncing its lack of legitimacy and describing it as un-Islamic in its behavior. On Jan. 27, Abdul Hamid urged the regime to end the hanging of protesters arrested in recent months. He also stated that the “people today have the same political demands as in 1979,” a reference to the last time Iranians came to the streets that resulted in regime change.
In other recent criticism, Abdul Hamid has begun to question the religious leadership of Khamenei, calling him—indirectly—a despot who wants to force people to be “obedient” to regime. On Jan. 27, he again doubled down in his criticism of Khamenei: “The Iranian nation had a revolution for its demands in 1979. They chanted and fought for freedom and justice and they won. Even today, people are shouting the same demands as in 1979. They want freedom and justice. The people of Iran want their freedom of speech and their rights.”
Abdul Hamid represents a unique challenge for Tehran, and the regime’s inner circle and senior leaders have not yet fully responded to him. But Khamenei has reportedly issued an order to find ways to undermine Abdul Hamid’s standing without arresting him. Khamenei is all too conscious about the sensitivities around tackling the country’s most prominent Sunni religious leader.
Needless to say, Khamenei is not interested in a genuine dialogue. The regime has even installed an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps general as the new governor for Baluchistan, sending the message that its solution to Sunni protests is more repression and stronger clampdowns. So far, there is little evidence that the regime believes that a political compromise with Abdul Hamid might be the better way forward.
Clearly, Tehran is not interested in a public confrontation with Hamid that might get of out control. But the regime is starting to push back against Abdul Hamid through a pressure campaign that is meant to discredit him. The cleric is increasingly painted as a figure who is religiously and politically reactionary. For example, pro-regime media have been pointing out that for a long time he supported the Taliban’s anti-women policies and has now suddenly become a voice for Iranian women’s political demands.
Some media outlets close to the regime have even suggested that Abdul Hamid should leave his role as the Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, the provincial capital. But as of today, Tehran is clearly still hoping it can gradually silence him without having to arrest or imprison him.
The fact that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards see the solution to the challenge of Baluchistan and Abdul Hamid purely in terms of more effective suppression methods bodes ill for the future. The challenges for this province are fundamentally socioeconomic, deeply rooted, and complex.
Baluchistan is probably the poorest province in Iran. More than 50 percent of its population live in villages. (The average for the rest of the country’s provinces is 25 percent.) Most of these villages lack basic amenities such as plumbing, drinking water, and electricity. Under these circumstances, it is little wonder that schools in the traditional sense are few and far between.
To say the regime has failed in addressing grievances is an understatement, particularly since it should be a manageable policy challenge. While Baluchistan is the second largest province of Iran out of 31 provinces, it has a small population of around 2.8 million people.
Successive governments have vowed to create industrial, agricultural, and transportation infrastructures, but these promises never materialized. The province suffers from widespread unemployment between 40 percent to 60 percent. By some official estimates, around 70 percent of the population lives under the absolute poverty line. With such realities, it is hardly surprising that Abdul Hamid’s anti-regime sermons have garnered so much support.
The regime knows Abdul Hamid can tap into this anger, but it is still hopeful that it can dissuade him via threats. As one post on a Telegram channel with links to the Revolutionary Guards put it, “Mr. Abdul Hamid, encouraging the youth and making them excited against the holy system of the Islamic Republic of Iran may cost you dearly! This is the last warning.”
The Revolutionary Guards denied they made the threat, which is understandable given the risks associated with turning Abdul Hamid into a political rallying point or martyr. The regime has long sought to keep his role limited. Not only is he severely restricted in his ability to travel outside of Iran, but he is also limited in his ability to travel to other provinces. Khamenei and his inner circle obviously fear him cultivating a national status for himself as a leader for political change. Whatever happens next in Baluchistan could shape the Iranian protest movement’s overall trajectory.