Iran, Balochistan and Pakistan: The Next Insurgent Frontier?

Balochistan has all the ingredients to conjure up major trouble for U.S forces in Afghanistan. If the Taliban is present in Balochistan, Pakistani authorities need to take stern action.
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In a recent suicide attack in southeastern Iran, dozens of Revolutionary Guards lost their lives along with an important commander. Jundullah, an important Balochi resistance group with alleged links to Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for this attack. Jundullah is active in the Sistan-Baluchestan province where these attacks took place. True to its policy of aggression, Iran immediately blamed Pakistan for facilitating these terrorists and demanded the extradition of Abdel Malik Rigi; the alleged leader of Jundullah hiding in Pakistan. Ahmadinejad also embroiled the United States and Britain as responsible for these attacks. An Iranian general went to the extent of asking permission to attack Pakistan to capture the alleged perpetrators of this attack.

Now let us dissect Iranian policy in the Sistan-Baluchestan province of Iran, which has seen a lot of military offensives in recent years. The province is dominated by ethnic Balochis; they are Sunnis and thus practice a different sect of Islam from the majority Shiite Iranians. Iran has a long history of oppressing Balochis and denying them basic human rights. Hundreds have been brutally murdered on false charges of terrorism while thousands are under police detention.

They are denied of proper education and economic opportunities and are one of the poorest ethnic groups in Iran. Their situation in neighboring Pakistan is not much different except for the fact that they are allowed to freely practice their faith. A brutal army "oppression" is underway in Pakistani Balochistan and there have been reports of widespread violation of human rights. Pakistani Balochistan also shares a border with Afghanistan and the capital city of Quetta has a strong presence of Taliban, along with speculation about Mullah Omar, and the American ambassador in Pakistan expressed serious concerns over it.

Balochistan has all the ingredients that could conjure up major trouble for U.S forces in Afghanistan. If the Taliban council of elders is present in Balochistan, Pakistani authorities need to take stern action. They, however, have denied these reports and are still intent on their excuses for the surging power of the Taliban. The recent offensive in South Waziristan will fail to achieve any positive results if Pakistani authorities do not act on American intelligence reports and comb up the Baloch areas.

Coming back to Iran, Ahmadinejad is following the old policy of stretched truth, and is not ready to accept the grave mistakes in the Balochistan region. How can the government expect the Baloch people to be faithful if they continue killing them, and impose the dirtiest restrictions on freedom of religious practice? The Iranian part of Balochistan is free of any Taliban due to tight border security.

Iran, on the other hand, was involved in fueling terrorism activities in Pakistan when the country saw some of the worst sectarian rioting between the majority Sunnis and minority Shiites in the 1980s and 1990s. Saudi Arabia also supported the Sunni groups as Pakistan became a victim of proxy war between these two countries. Sectarian tensions have died down in recent years except in the volatile tribal region of Parachinar where Shiites are a significant minority.

The ultimate victims are the poor Balochis, who face a double whammy: they are unable to practice their faith and live normal lives in Iranian Balochistan; they are free to practice their faith in Pakistan but face equal injustices and economic and racial discrimination. Covert military offensives are carried out in both of these regions on the pretext of countering liberation movements. There is, of course, an air of resistance in Baloch areas as they are fed up with decades of discrimination and brutal police and army offensives.

Pakistani Balochistan, specifically, is seeing a shift towards a liberation struggle -- headed by the Balochistan Liberation Army -- and nascent repercussions of this movement are evident from infrequent attacks on military personnel and installations. The strategic importance of Balochistan is evident from its geographical location at the cross roads of Middle East and South Asia. Additionally, the construction of Gwadar port as an alternative to the narrow Strait of Hormuz -- through which most of the Gulf region's oil supply passes, and where the Iranian threat is always present --has further exalted the position of Balochistan in the eyes of international security establishment. China is deeply interested in this region and has already shown its interest by building the Gwadar port for Pakistan.

The proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline will also pass through this region and the area itself is quite rich in mineral resources. Pakistan extracts a major chunk of its natural gas supplies from this area and there are also big deposits of gold, uranium and copper. Iranian Balochistan, on the other hand, also has these mineral deposits and the Iranian government is exploring them to a greater extent.

Despite being rich in mineral resources and located in one of the most geographically important regions in the world, Balochis are suffering in silence. Decades of injustice and discrimination has shredded the "near non-existent" Baloch middle class to the core and extremist forces have taken over. This trend is really threatening the regional security and Pakistan is already crying about an Indian hand in supporting Baloch separatists. The iron-fisted military presence of Iran has kept that region in relative calm except for infrequent suicide bombings and skirmishes. There is, however, no guarantee of a sustained peace as the Iranian military may start a major -- and of course brutal -- offensive in that region to avenge the death of its Revolutionary Guards. Public reaction from that offensive can further complicate the situation.

At the end of the day, Balochs are the real inhabitants of this region and they should have the final say in their matters. Before that, they need to be freed from the military brutality of both Iran and Pakistan. Iran, in particular, has to mend its ways, as it has barred Balochs from practicing their faith besides keeping them destitute and impoverished . Although Balochs are not as religiously fanatic as the Pashtuns, curbing their religion is one of the biggest reasons for disenfranchisement and the Iranian government knows about it. Additionally, a lack of economic development and the dominance of the Persians needs to be ended; this should be the case with Pakistan as well, as Punjabis dominate the economy of Balochistan and there is growing resentment against this hegemony.

Fissures in Balochistan -- both Iranian and Pakistani -- can be controlled and a disaster can be avoided if -- and only if -- an average Baloch is empowered and included in the mainstream of national life in both these countries. Otherwise, the world should be prepared for another security disaster in the middle of a region with great strategic importance and rivers of natural resources.

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