It is the closest thing to Mars that is given to see on Earth.” This is how a group of American geologists described Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan region in the 1970s. Iran’s second-largest province, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, is impoverished, has a rough terrain and an inhospitable climate, evoking harsh reactions from its former British rulers: “The place where god threw all the garbage in creation.”
They might have called it garbage but it was strategically important—so important that the British fought several wars over it. And, it continues. Both Sistan-Baluchistan and Pakistan’s Balochistan are seeing insurgencies that have soured ties between the two neighbours. The region is also a playground of disparate interests where Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Saudi Arabia are fighting for influence.
The trouble goes back to the 19th century, when the region was divided into East Baluchistan, under the control of the British Empire, and West Baluchistan, which remained a part of the Persian Empire. East Baluchistan enjoyed a certain autonomy under the British but was annexed to Pakistan following Partition and has since been fighting Islamabad for independence. In Iran, until the fall of the Shah in 1979, the nationalist sentiment among the Baluch was held in check. Tehran used an iron fist to prevent the members of the ethnic minority from organising themselves. Like in Pakistan, the strong-arm tactics bore the same result: the birth of a resistance movement and guerrilla organisations.
THE RESOURCE CURSE
Sistan-Baluchistan is rich in gas, gold, copper, uranium and oil, but has the lowest per capita income in Iran and about 80% of the population lives below the poverty line. The southeastern province also has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest literacy rate in the country. The Baluch are an ethnic and a religious minority. They follow Sunni Islam in Shia-majority Iran. The advent of the ayatollahs worsened the situation.
Shia missionaries were sent from Tehran into the region to “convert” people and those who refused were denied schools and job opportunities.
All names have been changed from Baluchi to Persian, even the name of the region—from Baluchistan to Sistan-Baluchistan. Locals say it is a matter of time before Baluchistan is dropped and the province is called Sistan.
The Baluch account for more than half of Iran’s executions, says the pressure group Voice for Baloch Missing Persons. Over the years, military bases have been installed in the area and internal immigration encouraged to check violence and marginalise the Baluch population. Tehran has repeatedly accused the CIA and the Mossad of financing the Baluch fighters. It also says that the Baluch have ties to the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but has offered little proof. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the centrepiece of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has only added to the problem.
In the past, Iran and Pakistan would help each other in suppressing the Baluch separatists but, of late, that has changed. In February, the chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps asked Pakistan to rein in Jaish al-Adl after a suicide attack in Sistan-Baluchistan left 27 of his men dead. Jaish al-Adl is an affiliate of Pakistan-based Sipah-e-Sahaba, which targets Shias.
The Chabahar Port, built by India, in the province has added a new dimension to the conflict. Chabahar, which allows India and Afghanistan to trade goods bypassing Pakistan, not just worries Islamabad but also Saudi Arabia and China.China, which has bet big on Pakistan, risks seeing its political-economic strategy thwarted, or, at least, diminished. Beijing has invested billions to develop a port at Gwadar, in Balochistan, which risks being overshadowed by Chabahar.
The Saudis see Chabahar as a direct threat that must be immediately neutralised by any means, including financing Baluch dissidents and other groups opposing the regime. Saudi Arabia shares close ties with Pakistan and is interested in Gwadar’s oil fields.
Saudi money is pouring into the area, where ultra-conservative madrassas have mushroomed that strengthen Sunni religious identity and serve as outposts for guerrilla groups. Tehran accuses the Saudis, the Americans and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of bankrolling the Baluch and other ethnic minorities such as the Kurds and the Azeris. The Saudis are financing guerrilla groups in Sistan-Baluchistan in a declared attempt to destabilise Tehran.
The Gulf state’s former intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom was seen in Paris in the company of Iranian dissidents as well as members of assorted rebel groups. Using guerrilla groups in Sistan-Baluchistan, given that terror groups patronised by the ISI to keep the Baluch in check also benefit from Riyadh’s funding, may not be a good idea.
As the Khan of Kalat, Suleman Khan, said, “The US has no intention of allowing the Chinese to settle comfortably in the region. At the moment, the Saudis have an interest in countering Iran and are playing their cards in that sense. They are trying to mobilise not only the West against Iran, starting with the United States, but also the Baluch, the Azeris and the Arabs. I repeat: just wait for the right time and place, and the mountain comes down effortlessly. We know how to wait.”
There is a fair chance that a conflict in Sistan-Baluchistan will cross over into Pakistan’s Balochistan. The Saudi attempt to destabilise Tehran evokes in Beijing the spectre of a low-intensity but large-scale ethnic-religious conflict that will have disruptive consequences for the BRI and its expansionist designs.
China could find itself getting caught in an armed conflict. It has troops stationed in Balochistan only to “protect Chinese interests and installations in the region” but the Baluch insurgents know how important CPEC is for Beijing. “We are not the only ones with outstanding accounts with Islamabad or Beijing. There are Uighurs and Pashtuns to name just a few. All along the CPEC, there is and there will be people who rebel against yet another forced occupation,” Khan warned.
Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written Apocalypse Pakistan - An Anatomy of ‘the World’s Most Dangerous Nation with B Natale
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