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Friday, February 20, 2009

Balochis intensify rebellion in Iran

To understand the roots of the Baloch insurgency, it is important to consider Iran's complex ethno-national and sectarian composition. Iran's ethnic Persian and Farsi-speaking population represents only a slight majority of Iran's total population of approximately 70 million, a population that includes sizeable Azeri, Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, and Baloch ethnic communities. A large majority of Iranians are Shi'ite Muslims. In contrast, the ethnic Baloch minority in Iran numbers between one and four million, nearly all of whom are Sunni Muslims. Iranian Balochistan is also one of Iran's poorest and most underserved provinces. Tehran has great difficulty administering law and order in the region, having to rely instead on harsh security crackdowns that alienate the public. Given its poverty, lawlessness, and porous border with Pakistan, Iranian Balochistan has emerged as a smuggler's paradise, a reputation that has made it both a regular target of the Iranian security services and an attractive base for enterprising criminals.

The politics of energy pipelines also help foster closer cooperation between Iran and Pakistan in suppressing Baloch nationalism. The greatly coveted Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline that will carry natural gas from Iran's South Pars field to Pakistan and India will traverse both Iranian and Pakistani Balochistan on its way to India and possibly even to China down the line.


While concerns regarding the spread of radical Sunni Islamist ideologies within the Baloch nationalist movement in Iran will continue to receive attention, there is no conclusive evidence linking Jundullah to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or affiliated groups. By all accounts, the trajectory of Jundullah's militancy will continue to emphasize the plight of the Baloch as a disaffected minority within Iran. At the same time, the ongoing violence and instability in Iranian Balochistan can potentially draw radical Sunni Islamists to the Baloch cause. There is also evidence that radical Sunni Islamists are paying closer attention to events in Iran, a trend that is likely to continue due to the widely held belief among many Sunni extremists that Iran and Shi'ite Muslims constitute an enemy akin to the United States.


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