President Rowhani was in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan in southeastern Iran on April 15. To the cheering crowds who met him, he proclaimed: “We don’t have second-class citizens; all Iranians are equal.”
Rowhani thanked local Sunni and Shi’ite leaders and the people of Sistan and Baluchistan for helping secure the release of four border guards kidnapped by the Jaish Al-Adl militant group in February. But he forgot to thank someone: Of the soldiers kidnapped, four of them were returned a week ago due to the intense efforts of Molavi Abdul-Hamid, a local Sunni leader, as well as other local elders. The fate of the fifth soldier is still unknown.
While the whole nation took to cyberspace to thank Abdul-Hamid, the popular Sunni Friday prayer imam of Zahedan province, many hardliners in the capital raised their eyebrows in jealousy and disapproval. Overnight, when the news broke of Abdul-Hamid’s mediation between the regime and the rebels, he become the most popular and likable figure in whole Iran—except among the country’s rulers.
The right person to talk about equality?
The province Rowhani visited is one of the most dangerous areas of Iran, due to its proximity to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Maintaining security there is hard, if not impossible, because the regime does not trust the local people to be in charge of their own security. It has been almost 35 years since the revolution, and this region is still discriminated against. The poor security situation is used as an excuse for the deployment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and domestic intelligence agents to the area, which causes a great deal of friction between the people of the province and the central government.
It is obvious that when a particular group or sect is discriminated against and their natural rights to live like other citizens are trampled, some of them will become violent. Yet still, Rowhani stood before the people, thanking them for their assistance in getting the border guards back and talking about equality. He doesn’t have even a single Sunni in his Cabinet.
The polls show that people of Sistan and Baluchistan voted for President Rowhani in large numbers in the election last summer. During his campaign, Rowhani promised to secure equality for all Iranians, regardless of their religion or sect. Not only did the president fail to convince the hardliners to agree to appoint a single Sunni to his Cabinet, he couldn’t even appoint a Baluchi governor for Sistan and Baluchistan.
Rowhani told the audience that meritocracy rules in Iran and that there are no differences between Iranian citizens. Are we meant to believe that among all of Iran’s Sunnis—who make up almost 10 percent of the population—they couldn’t find a single person capable of serving as a minister? What about for the governorship?
Sistan and Baluchistan has been recognized as the most deprived area of Iran. Developing these parts of the country is risky for the Shi’ite powers that be because the majority of the province’s people are Sunnis, and they are constantly accused of collaborating with radical armed groups. What most Iranians forget is that if the people of this province could have stable lives, jobs, and access to the nation’s wealth on the same basis as other citizens, they wouldn’t get involved with terrorist activities or separatist groups in the first place. Keeping them in poverty and appointing trusted regime insiders instead of locals to govern them does not make them feel like part of society.
Troubled enough by instability coming over the borders from Pakistan and Afghanistan, their troubles increase when their rights as Iranians are denied. Poverty, drug trafficking and armed rebel groups like Jaish Al-Adl and Jondolah are all born out of this mistrust and mistreatment. On other occasions, abducted Iranian soldiers have been brutally killed by the armed rebel groups. This time, when the border guards were kidnapped, the regime approached local people and sought their help in solving the problem. It worked because they refrained from using the harsh language of death and punishment that has so often been used in the past.
We Iranians were hoping to see Molavi Abdul-Hamid standing beside Rowhani, welcoming the president to the region. We wanted to hear him and cheer him for all he has done for the soldiers, but instead his welcoming speech was canceled and his appearance on camera was deliberately cut.
But he doesn’t need publicity: Iranians know what he done for the country and all people, regardless of their religion and sect, appreciate his service.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 20, 2014.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist, news commentator and writer who grew up during the Iranian Revolution and wrote for leading reformist newspapers. She is also the author of Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth - A Memoir of Iran. She lives in New York City and Dubai. She can be found on Twitter: @CameliaFard