On February 22, Iranian military forces opened fire on a group of Baluch fuel carriers who were protesting against the government for blocking their ability to take fuel loads into Pakistan. For decades, the livelihoods of thousands of Baluch families have depended on transporting cheap fuel to neighboring countries. It is unclear why these soldiers, who were from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), first detained and then opened fire on the carriers.
However, there are two likely possibilities: first, the IRGC’s desire to be the sole beneficiary of fuel smuggling; and, second, the Islamic Republic’s growing fear and paranoia about gatherings and protests, especially in border areas. Whatever the reason, the incident has alienated the Iranian Baluch community more than ever before.
Clashes, for example, erupted in Saravan, a city in Sistan and Baluchistan province in eastern Iran, shortly after the shooting, with protesters storming the provincial governor’s office. Accounts of the number of deaths from the incident conflict, with the government claiming that one person was killed and right groups claiming “two dozen” were killed (Center for Human Rights in Iran, March 1). As with previous incidents of unrest, Iranian authorities shut down the internet, causing fear to grow that there may be plans to intensify the crackdown.
Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, a well-respected Sunni religious leader and the Friday prayer imam in Zahedan, a city in Sistan and Baluchistan province, called on all sides to “avoid destruction of public properties” and demanded a thorough investigation into the circumstances that led to the unrest and violence. He recommended to the authorities that they “keep in mind the economic hardship of the local population. A large portion of [local] people win bread by carrying fuel. Until there are other options available, don’t cut their bread,” he said (Aftab News, February 25). According to Ismaeelzahi, the authorities were aware of the fuel carriers sending and selling fuel in Pakistan “as a means to evade economic sanctions on Iran” (YouTube, February 26).
Understanding Fuel Smuggling on the Iranian-Pakistani Border
For decades, smuggling fuel has been part of a dangerous illicit trade on both sides of the Iranian-Pakistani border. The trade can be accompanied by gunfire, bribes, and even death. Economic sanctions on Iran and the declining value of the Iranian rial have sparked the creation of organized fuel smuggling networks (Gandhara, February 11). In a region so economically deprived on both sides of the border, the opportunities for earning a living are often limited to either trafficking drugs or smuggling fuel. Fuel carriers lack any other income besides carrying gasoline and diesel fuel from Iran to Pakistan, with the big money going to the organizers. In contrast, drivers and truckers receive only a small share of the profit even though they are the ones who take the most risks.
Sources conflict on the amount of fuel that is annually smuggled. Estimates vary from between 10 to 40 million liters daily. According to the Iranian Minister of Petroleum Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, “smuggling has increased [in recent years]. This is not just limited to smugglers, everybody does it.” This indicated that officials at high levels of power may be involved in running the lucrative business (Eghtesad Online, September 12, 2018).
In 2014, several multi-million-dollar security projects along Iran’s eastern border were assigned to the IRGC, including the construction of new towers and barriers along the border with Pakistan (YouTube, January 24, 2018; Donya-e-Eqtesad, March 29, 2014). Later, in 2018, the IRGC presented its Razzagh (“provider”) Plan, allegedly to “decrease poverty and reduce social suffering, such as smuggling,” and the IRGC took control of border security (Mehr News, February 28). In reality, however, according to the Razzagh Plan, a database will be created that defines who is “poor enough” to carry fuel, as well as the origin and amount of the fuel to be distributed. The IRGC then built fuel stations in order to take full control of the distribution among carriers. However, Iranian officials have criticized one another behind the scenes for this system’s failures. An unnamed official from the Headquarters for Combatting Smuggling of Goods and Foreign Exchange blamed the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company (NIORDC), for example, for “lack of cooperation and delays” (Mehr News, February 28).
Sistan and Baluchistan is also, perhaps, Iran’s poorest region. The dire situation and depth of poverty in the province was exemplified in an anecdote relayed by a parliamentary representative of Zahedan. According to Mo’ineddin Saeed, “a few years ago, an honorable widow was forced to sell her body out of desperation to provide her children with drinking water” (Aftab News, October 21, 2020). The woman then committed suicide, he added. Another example was expressed in 2014 by Shahindokht Molaverdi, a former vice president in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government. In a remote, poor village in Sistan and Baluchistan province, “There are no men; all have been hanged by the government for drug and other offenses” (Mehr News, February 23, 2016).
Protests and unrest in the border regions have always been rife with conspiracy theories. Therefore, it was unsurprising to see the Islamic Republic News Agency characterizing the February 22 incident and its aftermath as the product of “foreign countries’ involvement in inserting insurgency and unrest into Iran.” According to Mohammad Hadi Marashi, the deputy governor of Sistan and Baluchistan, “provocations” were carried out by the extremist Salafist group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) during the unrest in Saravan (IRNA, February 28).
The Islamic Republic has struggled to deal with its ethnic challenges. Its policy of blaming foreign enemies for unrest and protests has now been compounded by the increasing paranoia of Iranian authorities, as evidenced in the February 22 fuel smuggling incident. Authorities emphasizing a policy of militarization and an excessive use of force instead of winning the hearts and minds of the people in minority regions has created a vicious cycle of violence and dissatisfaction among Iran’s minority communities. This is, in part, a self-inflicted wound by the Iranian government.