Can Rouhani Meet the Expectations of Iran’s Sunnis?

by Fatemeh Aman

Sunni religious minorities had a high turnout in Iran’s recent presidential election that led to Hassan Rouhani’s victory. Is there now a better prospect for improving the rights of minorities, or were they only used as a voting machine?

The popular Sunni religious leader, Molavi AbdolHamid Ismaeelzahi— the Friday prayer imam of Zahedan, a city in the predominantly Sunni Sistan-Baluchestan province—stated on May 22 that “with the enthusiastic participation of Sunnis in the election, Sunni elites will be more vocal in expressing their legal demands.”

The majority of the population in some of Iran provinces such as Sistan-Baluchistan and Kurdistan are Sunnis. Sistan-Baluchestan province, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, is plagued with high unemployment and drug addiction. They suffer from the severe impact of climate change. Extreme poverty could be a contributing factor in pushing Baluchi youth to join bandits and other militia groups, though the thoughtful leadership of Molavi AbdolHamid has kept down those numbers. Shia-centric hardliners generally don’t trust Molavi or other Sunni religious leaders. They blame “foreign enemies” for the occasional unrest and violence in the province, never the discriminatory policies of the state.

The victories of reformists and moderates in past presidential elections have not dramatically improved the living conditions of the Baluchi population.

Baluchis supported former reformist president Mohammad Khatami in both 1997 and 2001. They voted overwhelmingly for the reformist opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and 2009, and supported Rouhani in 2013. Sunnis participate in the elections in high numbers largely because Molavi promotes working within the system to achieve rights. Molavi stated that Rouhani’s government, “has performed well and its strengths overweigh its weaknesses.” Iranians, he went on to say, “should not look to foreign governments for help. If their rights have been ignored, they should pursue [those rights] using legal and correct methods.”

One of the main demands of the Baluchis is equal employment opportunities, especially for qualified Sunnis to be hired as managers. Currently, job candidates are asked about their religious identity and specifically whether they are Sunni or Shia before they’re employed. According to Molavi, even hospitals ask patients about their religion. Some Sunnis pretend to be Shia to avoid rejection on the basis of their religion. The problem is rooted in article 115 of the Iranian constitution, which restricts the religion of a presidential candidate to Shia Islam. Another article of the constitution (Article 12) guarantees that article 115 can never be changed.

Blaming Foreign Countries for Unrest

There is a broad fear that Iran’s neighboring Arab states are plotting to create unrest and violence in the Sunni-populated provinces bordering Iraq and Pakistan. The fear is so serious that even Supreme Leader Ali Khameni justifies Iran’s deploying fighters to Syria as a means to prevent the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) from establishing a presence in Iranian provinces. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders view this deployment to Syria as a way to prevent radical Sunni groups who brand other Muslims as heretics from becoming active inside Iran.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia deteriorated with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. After several subsequent ups and down, diplomatic relations were severed in 2016 after the Saudi government executed Nimr al-Mimr, the prominent Shia cleric, along with 47 of his followers. In response, thousands protested in Tehran, and a mob set fire to the Saudi embassy. Molavi continues to encourage negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which he hopes will lead to the resumption of diplomatic relationship between the two countries. The issue came up during the presidential campaign as well, with Rouhani accusing his conservative opponents of having damaged Iran-Saudi relations.

Unfortunately, fear of militia activities has prompted hardliners to treat Baluchi and Sunni prisoners accused of drug trafficking or “belonging to Salafi groups” harshly. This has in turn deepened Sunni animosity toward the central government. By executing the Sunni prisoners, despite Molavi’s plea to the authorities and even to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hardliners sent the message to the population of those areas that a moderate president in Tehran wouldn’t be powerful enough to change the terms of treatment of the Sunnis. However, these harsh reactions stem partly from genuine fear of unrest instigated by Saudis.

In 2016, 150 parliament members submitted a draft to the Majlis leadership asking to reduce the punishment from execution to life in prison for those who have not been involved in armed robbery or trafficked huge amounts of illicit drugs. They argued that the execution of drug traffickers has not necessarily prevented or decreased drug trafficking or addiction. The draft created some hope for dozens of Sunni prisoners on death row, some accused of drug trafficking. However, on August 2, 2016, 22 Sunni prisoners were unexpectedly executed before the draft submitted to the Majlis could be approved.

Situation in Kurdistan

Kurdistan is of great sensitivity to the authorities because of its proximity to Iraqi Kurdistan. There have been reports of activities by IS sympathizers in the areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. Rahbord, a publication by the Center for Strategic Studies and Education of the Interior Ministry, devoted an edition last year to a report on the ethnic and religious ties between both Kurdistans and describes the activities of the Salafi groups in Iraqi Kurdistan as a “potential threat to the internal security of Iran.”

Iranian authorities from the conservative judiciary occasionally claim to have discovered and dismantled IS-linked “terrorist groups and prevented them from conducting their sabotage.” However, the reality doesn’t support these claims. The president’s special assistant for ethnic and religious minorities, IRGC commander Mohamad Ali Jafari, and Sunni religious leaders have all stated in the past that IS does not have sympathizers within Iran’s Sunni minority groups. Those that might exist would be rejected by the Sunnis.

After the group executions of Sunni prisoners in 2016, both Molavi and Sheikh Hassan Amini, a Sunni religious leader from the city of Sanandaj in Iran’s Kurdistan province, asked the Sunnis to keep calm. Amini called the executions “thoughtless” and questioned their timing given the number of religious and ethnic conflicts in the Middle East. “Instead of unifying Sunni and Shias,” Amini said, the authorities “create more rift and divisions between Sunni and Shia.”

The broader discrimination and mistreatment of the Sunnis has often intensified the conflicts between Shia and Sunni. The mistreatment of youth has been a very effective factor in alienating Sunni youth and pushing them toward “foreign enemies” or separatist tendencies. Only political participation, integration into social life, and providing young people with a more active role in shaping their future can neutralize the messages of radicalization.

Molavi AbdolHamid recently responded jokingly to a question of why Sunnis always vote for reformists. “Principalists [conservatives] don’t accept us,” he said, adding “If they want us to move toward them, they have to accept the cost, and the cost for them would be to assign Sunnis to important positions.”

Photo: Molavi AbdolHamid Ismaeelzahi meets with Hassan Rouhani

Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).


One Comment

  1. Rouhani is going to try his best to keep the peace domestically! However, the peace can be shattered very quickly and Rouhani would be silent if a few stupid people would try to cooperate with Iraqi ISIS in Kermanshah or with the Taleban or Pakistani terrorists in Sistan and Baluchistan!

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