Iran has witnessed intense protests since the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, with the Iranian public enraged by this act of brutality undertaken by the country’s infamous ghasht-e-irshad (morality police). The protests quickly spread across the country and to restive provinces such as Khuzestan and Sistan and Balochistan which have seen regular anti-government protests over the years. Last year, the government ruthlessly cracked down on protests that had ignited in Sistan and Balochistan after Balochi fuel traders were killed at the Iran-Pakistan border; they were fired on by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC.) Given the deep-rooted anger that exists among the people in this province against the government for its neglect and oppression as well as for its alleged covering up of a sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by a senior police officer a month ago, it was a matter of time before another incident sparked off a new round of protests. Amini’s killing provided the appropriate pretext for the people of Sistan and Balochistan to mobilize and protest against government brutality and to vent their anger against the tools of oppression, particularly the IRGC.
As a result of the volatile security situation in the province, the IRGC did not show any restraint and unleashed full force to subdue the protests. At the Makki Mosque in the city of Zahedan on Friday, September 30, 2022, the IRGC opened fire on worshippers killing at least 58 people and injuring dozens. Knowing no limits, the IRGC thought this brutal act would scare the people into submitting and ending their protests but instead the people were further enraged and escalated their protests, especially the youth, and chanted anti-government slogans, particularly “Death to Khamenei,” directly implicating the perpetrator of the ghastly crime in the mosque. Worrying for the government is that the mosque incident against the backdrop of nationwide protests seems to have given separatist groups more momentum in the province, with separatists taking advantage of the security chaos to target a local police station.
The state-run IRNA news agency reported that 32 IRGC members, including volunteer Basij personnel, were wounded in the attack. It is normal for IRGC members to be stationed at local police stations across Iran’s provinces, allowing them to mobilize quickly and respond immediately to threats to the government. Furthermore, it was reported that the head of the IRGC’s intelligence department Seyyed Ali Mousavi was shot during the attack and later died. This represents a major win for the opposition, given his senior position in the country’s intelligence apparatuses. IRGC Commander-in-Chief General Hossein Salami said that the guards would take revenge for the killing of its members in Zahedan. “We consider revenge for the blood of the IRGC and Basij martyrs and the people who were victims of the Black Friday crime in Zahedan to be on our agenda,” IRNA reported.
There have been reports of more IRGC deployments to Zahedan, and the flying of drones over the city. The government has been active in pushing its propaganda that external forces are working to create a Syria-type situation in Iran. This is quite typical of the government to blame outside parties rather than self-reflect over its role in alienating the Iranian populace. External parties are not to blame for the oppression, mistreatment, mismanagement, neglect and corruption that the people of Sistan and Balochistan have had to endure. The sole actor responsible is the Iranian government which has squandered the people’s resources on disastrous regional projects and has created difficult conditions for ethnic and religious minorities throughout the country. There is a strong grassroots movement which has expanded over the years against the government, and it has gained greater numbers and increased momentum, and protestors are no longer holding back and are retaliating against the violence inflicted by the oppressive symbols of the establishment.
Sistan and Balochistan will continue to be a thorn in the side of the government as well as other minority-dominated provinces, but this headache, in addition to nationwide protests which seem to be growing and with protestors no longer fearing to attack the symbols of the establishment and confront them, are likely to deepen and widen the extent of domestic destabilization, with the government in effect digging its own grave. The facade of legitimacy claimed by the government has been eroded, with the government exposed in front of its own populace. The violent events at Sharif University of Technology are further proof of this.
What seems to be saving the government is the fact that the international community has not taken resolute action against Iran, particularly the major powers, with the United States eager to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. So, in fear of not upsetting Iran, no concrete actions have been taken to intensify the pressure on the Iranian government. A decisive international response would provide much needed support to the protestors in their struggle and would be viewed as a beacon of hope at a difficult time. In addition, the protests are scattered across Iran, there is no central leadership and the protestors have common as well as distinct demands. A common tactic employed by the Iranian establishment during times of heightening public pressure is to grant the “reformists” greater latitude and access to media platforms. This was illustrated by the “authorized comments” made by the “reformists” regarding the protests in the country. The “reformists” in fact help to diffuse the anger and represent a softer face of the establishment, but in essence uphold the guardian jurist system and are loyal to the supreme leader. It is only a matter of time before the Iranian people realize this, and then any tactics or elements of manipulation will be unavailable to the establishment, with it stranded at sea and nowhere to head except to sink.