Sunnis on the rise in Iran

The Grand Makki Mosque in Zahedan, Iran.

The Grand Makki Mosque in Zahedan, Iran

By Mona Moussavi, Editorial Assistant

In July, Iran’s Ministry of Health announced that all family-planning programmes and procedures would be suspended. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on women to have more children to boost the country’s population to 150-200 million. Contraceptive policy made sense 20 years ago, he said, but its continuation in later years was wrong.

Numerous explanations have been given for this change in policy: that it was an attempt to show the world that Iran is not suffering from sanctions; to avoid an aging population with rising medical and social-security costs; or to return to Iran’s ‘genuine culture’. Some speculate that the new policy seeks to address the Supreme Leader’s concerns that Iran’s Sunni population is growing much faster than its Shia one (7% growth in Sunni areas compared to 1-1.3% in Shia areas).

Such concerns are not new. While Iran’s Sunnis – currently 9% of the population – are a long way from outnumbering the Shia majority, a growing Sunni population has serious implications for Iran’s domestic and regional politics.

Sunnis in Iran

Iran’s Sunni Muslims comprise mostly Arabs in the southwest, Kurds in the northwest, Baluchis in the southeast and Turkmen in the northeast of Iran. They face widespread discrimination by Iranian authorities. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012 Report states that ‘Sunni leaders have reported … abuses and restrictions on their religious practice, including detentions and abuse of Sunni clerics … and bans on Sunni teachings in public schools and Sunni religious literature, even in predominantly Sunni areas’. Sunnis are not allowed to build mosques in large cities and have been banned from conducting separate Eid prayers.

Attacks in Sunni-populated areas are not unusual. In May, one person was killed and two injured after police forces opened fire on protestors in Sistan-Baluchistan province. They were protesting against the recent arrest of local Sunni clerics. Last year, at least 12 people believed to be Sunni protestors were killed in Ahwaz, a southwestern city in the Khuzestan province, in clashes with security forces. Several Sunni mosques have been destroyed – the Abu Hanifa Mosque in Sistan-Baluchistan was bulldozed in 2008 – or converted into parks.

Last year, Sunni members of the Iranian parliament wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei formally requesting ‘an end to discrimination against Sunnis, an end to religious limitations for Sunnis, and permission to construct a mosque in Tehran’. No Iranian officials have formally responded.

Regional repercussions

Since the Islamic Republic’s founding, soft power has been central to its quest for regional hegemony: it has appealed to the largely Sunni ‘Arab street’ to garner support. The repression of Iran’s own Sunni population seriously undermines this strategy. It is particularly problematic now, at a time when Iran finds itself isolated and unpopular, given its continued support for the Syrian regime.

Even more concerning is that a growing Sunni population within Iran’s borders could provide its suspicious regional rivals a way to destabilise Iran by cultivating allies and proxies, essentially replicating Iran’s own strategy in several Arab countries. As Philip Salzman – professor of anthropology at McGill University – puts it, ‘Iran’s neighbors are watching Iran’s treatment of its minorities, as they watch Iran’s manoeuvres in the wider world of Persian-Arab and Shi’a-Sunni relations. Persian interference in Saudi Arabia through its Shi’a minority could be met with counter-measures among the Sunnis of Iran.’

Given the Gulf Cooperation Council’s concern about perceived Iranian meddling in their affairs, particularly in the Bahraini uprising and after an Iranian spy ring was arrested in Kuwait, it is not implausible that Gulf Arab states would support a frustrated Sunni minority to weaken the regime from within.

Change from within?

A key player in such a scenario could be Jundullah, a militant group based in Pakistan, which claims to fight for the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran. The group’s origins and structure are unclear, though it has been linked to many organisations, including the Baloch Liberation Army, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Tehrik-e-Taliban, and even al-Qaeda.

Jundullah has carried out a number of attacks in Sistan-Baluchistan, notably a suicide bombing near the Pakistani border in October 2009, in which six senior Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders were killed and an attack on a Shia mosque in Zahedan in July 2010 that killed 27 people.

Though its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, was executed in 2010, Iranian media reported a planned attack by the group as recently as August, during the high-profile Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Tehran.

The Iranian government has repeatedly accused Jundullah of receiving Saudi, Israeli and American support. When Rigi was first arrested, Heydar Moslehi, the Iranian intelligence minister, said he had been at a US military base 24 hours before. In a state television broadcast, the Jundullah leader said ‘they [Americans] promised to help us and said they would cooperate with us’. Though such statements may be exaggerated, they are not isolated. An ABC news report in 2007 said that Jundullah had been ‘secretly encouraged and advised by American officials’ to destabilise Iran. Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker in 2006 that the Pentagon had established ‘covert relationships with Kurdish, Azeri, and Baluchi tribesmen, and has encouraged their efforts to undermine the regime’s authority in northern and southeastern Iran’.

Jundullah may not be close to threatening the regime at present. Terrorist attacks strengthen Iran’s national cohesion and distract from the Iranian people’s many grievances with the regime. Moreover, in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV in 2008, Rigi made it clear that ‘[T]he only thing we ask of the Iranian government is to be citizens. We want to have the same rights as the Iranian Shi’ite people. That’s it.’ This is far from the goal of regime change for which others hope. Nevertheless, as a persecuted and discontented Sunni population grows in Iran, so do Jundullah’s objectives. In a country with few friends and countless enemies, Iran’s government could do without another source of domestic instability – particularly one that could receive foreign assistance.


2 Comments on “Sunnis on the rise in Iran”

  1. [...] Sunnis are not allowed to build mosques in large cities. Attacks in Sunni-populated areas in Iran is very common, police often open fire and kill protesters who protest for more rights and arrests of their Sunni clerics. Several Sunni mosques have been destroyed including the Abu Hanifa Mosque in the Sistan-Baluchistan was bulldozed in 2008 or converted into parks. Sunni members of the Iranian parliament formally requested Ayatollah Khamanei to ‘end discrimination against Sunnis and end religious limitations to construct a mosque in Tehran and no Iranian officials formally responded – Source [...]

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