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Zahedan and the Vote

29 May 2009 16:46No Comments
Security sweep through Zahedan earlier this month.

Dispatch from Zahedan, Iran | This report was prepared before this week's bomb blast.

[TEHRAN BUREAU] Signs of Iran's approaching presidential election are beginning to show here: Armed soldiers are posted at every major square and thoroughfare, campaign offices of various candidates are cropping up across the city -- and on Amir-al-Momenin Street, I spot a huge poster of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the moderate candidate considered President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main rival on June 12.

In the streets, people can be occasionally overheard discussing the race. But among Zahedan's university students it is a hot topic. Like university students everywhere in Iran, they are more passionate about social and political issues than most.

Many student organizations have been shut down in Zahedan. One allowed to operate and going strong is the student Basij. However, there is one non-Basiji local student organization left in Zahedan called the Baluch Student Committee, which is made up of student representatives from various cities and towns in Sistan-Baluchistan province. The Baluch Student Committee is strongly supportive of Mir Hossein Mousavi's candidacy.

Mousavi's campaign director in Sistan-Baluchistan, Mohammad-Taghi Rakhsani, who is also the publisher of the reformist daily Zahedan, says he is confident that most voters in Sistan-Baluchistan support reform-minded candidates. A hardline website supportive of Ahmadinejad has recently accused Rakhsani of having connections to an outlawed terrorist organization.

In 2007, Zahedan was the site of a series of terrorist attacks for which Jundallah, a Sunni terrorist group, claimed responsibility; the Iranian government has accused Pakistan and the United States of complicity. The first bombing occurred at 6:30 a.m. on February 14 when a car filled with explosives came to a stop next to a bus carrying Revolutionary Guards in Ahmadabad district. The car exploded, killing 18 and injuring 31 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp.

ISNA, a government news agency, reported today that more than 50 domestic and foreign reporters as well as about 50 representatives from Asia and Europe arrived in Sistan Balouchestan to attend a closing ceremony of security maneuvers under way in the province since May 16. Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, was said to be among them.

The exercises are an effort to demonstrate police preparedness to combat armed bandits, drug-traffickers and lawless gangs in the border areas and to implement programs to monitor border crossings. Sistan-Baluchistan continues to have a reputation for being unstable, dangerous and a home to domestic terrorists and secessionists.

"Those who say these things don't know Iran and its history," Rakhsani said in a recent interview. "Our history is a testimony to the loyalty of most Baluchis to Iran."

Baluchis, said the Zahedan native who holds a PhD in history, have long been the custodians of Iran's borders with its eastern neighbors. Over the centuries, they fought British, Portuguese and other invaders. They played a critical role in maintaining the territorial integrity of Persia, which included keeping most of Sistan-Baluchistan a part of Iran.

"We are as patriotic and nationalistic as any Iranian," he says. "The only thing the people here want and demand is their legal and legitimate rights."

In addressing the province's terrorist problem, in particular Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of Jundallah, the Sistan-Baluchistan-based terrorist organization, Rakhsani said: "The Rigi terrorist outfit does not have wide popular support. He is not even considered an important figure within his own clan. The separatists and secessionists are wholly unrepresentative of the broader Baluchi community. As previously mentioned, what most Baluchis want is an end to discriminatory practices, respect for their rights and they want to be treated like any other Iranian citizen."

. . .

The Rasuli Intersection is the economic heart of Zahedan. Old shops, new malls and shopping centers are all concentrated in and around this intersection. From the latest mobile phones to cosmetics, clothes and Persian rugs, they can be found here. One can also find illicit drugs such as naas -- a chewing narcotic sold in green plastic bags made in Pakistan -- being peddled by Pakistanis and Afghans. American military supplies imported from across the Afghan border -- military tents, boots, fatigues, binoculars -- are also sold here.

As soon as the noon call to prayer, most business owners and workers leave their stores and stand to prayer. Contrary to Shiites, Sunnis pray standing.

Zahedan's old Bazaar is located on Shariati Avenue. The Bazaar is not dissimilar to other traditional bazaars in Iran with its long corridors and hallways. One of the most important sections of the old Bazaar is the garment district which sells embroidered cloths for women's traditional Baluchi dresses, some as exorbitantly priced as $100 per meter. In the Bazaar, almost everyone speaks Baluchi.

Contrary to other Bazaar merchants, Seifollah, a garment shop owner, welcomes me into his store. He didn't even mind when I took photographs of his embroidered garments. He was also forthcoming about business these days.

"It's terrible," he said. "We just sit around here and drink tea. The borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan have been shut for the last 20 days and we are unable to send our products across the border."

There were several other men in Seifollah's store, with traditional Baluchi clothes and long beards (shaved mustaches are customary for Sunni men), who concurred with Seifollah about business's dismal state.

When I broached the subject of the upcoming election, they were dismissive about the political process, and anything but enthusiastic for the incumbent. Their favorite candidate appeared to be former president Mohammad Khatami, who is no longer running.

. . .

"Tusan," a pro-government weekly funded and published by the Governor-General of Sistan-Baluchistan, is run by Hassan-Ali Nouri. When I went to his office, it appeared that his door was open to all. People were free to walk in and discuss their problems with the Governor-General.

The latest issue of "Tusan" is adorned with photos of President Ahmadinejad.

When I broached the subject of border instability with him, he blamed it all on the United States and its actions on Iran's eastern border.

"Foreigners have said time and again they would not allow Ahmadinejad and his government to accomplish their objectives," Nouri stated. "We will not allow some to use the pretext of freedom to sow the seeds of discord. All governments have 'redlines.' For example, we will breakup meetings convened under the guise of Sunni solidarity, during which CDs are distributed in which Saddam is praised as a 'martyr' and a 'mujahid' (holy warrior)."

Later in the conversation, he denied discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in the region. He called on those making such claims to back it up with evidence.

Regarding the upcoming presidential election, the Governor-General grudgingly admitted that most people in his province are reform-minded.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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