News is filtering out of Iran of mass arrests of Sunni Muslims living in the south-east of the country, in the annexed and occupied region of Balochistan. It signifies a coordinated crackdown against religious and ethnic dissidents who oppose Tehran’s clerical sectarianism and its neo-colonial subjugation of the Baloch people.

Iran’s repression, which has intensified since August, is targeting expressions of Baloch identity and culture; in particular expressions of religious freedom and national self-determination.

The Baloch people are a separate ethnic group within Persian-dominated Iran, and have long suffered racist persecution. In contrast to the Shia Muslim regime in Tehran, the Baloch are predominantly Sunni Muslims. This combination of ethnic and religious dissidence has led to them being harshly victimised by successive Iranian leaders, from the Shah to President Ahmadinejad.

Tehran’s repression of the Baloch is well documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It has also been reported by Radio Balochi FM and the Baloch People website. The recent crackdown is confirmed by officially-sanctioned Iranian news agencies.

In a March this year, Iranian parliament member Hossein Ali Shahryari stated that 700 people were awaiting execution in Sistan and Balochistan provinces, many of them Baloch political prisoners. This staggering number of death sentences is evidence of the intense, savage repression that is taking place.

Balochistan was forcibly incorporated into Iran by Reza Shah’s army in 1928. The reign of the Pahlavi dynasty created a centralised, predominantly Persian state that enshrined ethnic suppression - a policy embraced and strengthened by Iran’s current theocratic rulers, who see Sunni Baloch as a threat to their purist Shia revolution of 1979.

As Sunni Muslims, the Baloch people experience marginalisation and discrimination within a country where Shia Islam is the official state religion and holds political power. They seek self-rule, either within a federal Iran or as an independent nation of Balochistan (together with the Baloch regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan).

On both counts, religious and ethnic, they are deemed enemies of the neo-colonialists in Tehran; hence the current wave of repression.

Reports from the left-wing Balochistan People’s Party and from Balochistan Human Rights Watch catalogue arrests, executions and widespread attacks on Sunni Muslim institutions.

Mulavi Ahmed Naroi, a high-ranking Sunni leader, was arrested on August 9 and is now incarcerated in a Tehran prison. He was member of the editorial board of Sunni Online, a religious website. Another member of the Sunni Online board, Mohammad Yousef Ismailzahi, was arrested on September 9.

The Abu Hanifa Mosque, a Sunni mosque and religious school in city of Zabol, was attacked and demolished, using bulldozers and tractors, on August 27. Many important, priceless editions of the Quran and historic Sunni religious books were destroyed. The mosque’s students and staff were also arrested. They have now completely disappeared. No one knows where they have been taken or what has been done to them. There are fears that they are being tortured or perhaps have been executed in secret.

Soon after the August 27 raid, there were mass raids in which relatives and friends of the arrested people were also arrested by Iranian intelligence agents.

In a blatant attempt at censorship and cover-up, the vice-deputy head of political and social affairs in Sistan and Balochistan, Mohammad Zadeh Farahani, denounced the videos and photos of the mosque’s destruction as false and fictitious. He warned that anyone who disseminates images of the destruction will be arrested and severely punished.

Last year, another mosque in the same district was ransacked and destroyed by associates of the Revolutionary Guards. The imam, Hafez Mohammad Ali Shahbkhsh, was arrested on October 27.

More recently, on 16 June this year, 33 military vehicles packed with Mersad agents (the special security force in Iran) attacked the village of Nasirabad. The aim of the attack was to arrest Moulavai Abed Bahramzahi, the local Sunni religious clerk. Armed officers assaulted protesting villagers; three of whom were seriously injured, hospitalised and later imprisoned.

Two Sunni religious workers were hanged in Zahedan jail in April after having confessed, under extreme torture, to resistance activities against the Iranian regime. Tehran accused them of supporting armed Baloch nationalist groups, but the evidence against them was purely circumstantial and the conduct of their trials was seriously flawed. They were humiliated in public and their confessions were broadcast on Iranian TV, in a deliberate attempt to intimidate all oppositionists. Three more Baloch rights campaigners were executed in Zahedan prison on August 24.

Early last month, four Baloch cultural workers, including a young poet, were arrested. Nothing has been heard them since, according to Balochistan Human Rights Watch.

Even young Baloch children are being targeted by the Iranian regime. Many have been arrested and jailed. Some have suffered severe beatings, which have left them with broken limbs. At least two youngsters have been murdered in violent assaults.

Much of this repression by Iranian government security agents has racist, anti-Baloch overtones, with the victims being insulted about their ethnicity and faith.

The democratic socialist Balochistan Peoples Party (BPP) is appealing to the international community to put pressure on the Iranian regime to “stop the arrest and killing of religious workers and activists; stop the destruction of Sunnis mosques, religious sites and Baloch people homes; release all political prisoners and religious workers; and stop the detention, torture and execution of innocent young Baloch men and women”.

The BPP says the persecution of moderate Sunni clerics and religious students is an attempt by the Tehran regime to suppress non-fundamentalist believers and to strengthen the position of fanatical Shiism in the Baloch homeland. Since most Balochs are Sunni, attacks on the Sunni faith are also de facto attacks on the Baloch people and nation.

BPP leaders see Tehran’s religious repression as part of a sinister plan to culturally dominate Balochistan and undermine indigenous faith and national sentiment. The aim is the forced assimilation of the Baloch people into a Persian-Shia dominated Iran and the crushing of Baloch national identity and aspirations. Peter Tatchell, The Guardian; 16 Oct. 2008.