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Maulana Abdulhamid said he was under pressure for past criticisms of the Iranian government, in particular over a plan to reform Sunni schools.
KERMAN, Iran - The leaders of Shi'ite-majority Iran are growing increasingly impatient with the Sunni clergy in the southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan. The shift in official mood appears to reflect falling confidence in once-favored Muslim leaders, in a region where the government worries about Sunni fundamentalism and separatism.
In October, two son-in-laws of Maulana Abdulhamid Esmail-Zehi, the most prominent Sunni cleric in Iran, Abdulalim Shahbakhsh and Hafez Esmail Molla-Zehi, were arrested.
Fars News Agency, which is affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said Shahbakhsh was accused of being in contact with "foreign elements".
Shahbakh's passport had been already been confiscated, after he returned from an Islamic conference in Turkey in July. Maulana Abdulhamid's passport was seized after he came back from the same event, and he was barred from going to a conference in Saudi Arabia.
The authorities have also seized the passports of other prominent Sunni clerics of Balochi origin such as Maulana Abdulghani Badri, director of education at the Makki seminary in Zahedan, and Maulana Osman Ghalandar-Zehi, director of Madinat ul-Ulum, an Islamic school in the town of Khash.
The arrest of Maulana Abdulhamid's son-in-laws is perplexing, as he has always been seen as a moderate who spoke out against attacks committed by Jundallah, a Balochi insurgent group that Tehran says has links to al-Qaeda.
A week before the two arrests, the authorities detained three suspected suicide bombers on the border with Pakistan.
In a November 11 interview with the Zahedan daily, Maulana Abdulhamid said he was under pressure for past criticisms of the Iranian government, in particular over a plan to reform Sunni schools.
Maulana Abdulhamid has in the past expressed support for the reformist opposition, and this appears to be another reason why regime figures, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have turned against him. He says Khamenei has not responded to letters and requests for meetings sent by the Sunni clergy.
Tehran's early reliance on Sunni clergy
The clampdown on mainstream Sunni clerics appears to mark a significant change in direction. If previously Tehran promoted Sunni clerics, above all Maulana Abdulhamid, as a way of controlling the Baloch community, now they seem to harbor suspicions about their leadership, partly because of their contacts with Sunni Arab states and possibly also with fundamentalist groups abroad
The Baloch are a distinct ethnic group ranging across southeast Iran, southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan, and all three states have historically struggled to contain aspirations for autonomy. In Iran before 1979, Baloch society was led by feudal lords and tribal chieftains, with Sunni clerics and a small educated class playing a lesser role.
After the Iranian revolution, the new Islamic regime declared itself a defender of the oppressed and swept away the traditional leaders. To fill the void, they built up the clergy, and supported Maulana Abdulhamid's rise to become de facto leader of the Baloch. Support from Tehran in turn enhanced his credibility among the Baloch.
Over the past two decades, Maulana Abdulhamid has used his influence to develop the Makki seminary, which with 10,000 students is the largest Sunni religious college in Iran, and encouraged the building of Sunni mosques and madrassas not only in Sistan-Balochistan, but also in other largely Sunni areas of Iran like Golestan and Kurdistan.
Over the years, Maulana Abdulhamid came to be the sole recognized spokesman for Baloch concerns, and also the conduit by which Balochs could obtain appointments such as to local government. This monopoly irked educated intellectuals, tribal leaders and others who felt excluded.
"This policy rendered other Baloch groupings unimportant and powerless, and this has done nothing but harm to the Baloch community and the country," an expert on Sistan-Balochistan said.
From 2002 onwards, the Iranian authorities began facing a major security threat in Sistan-Balochistan, in the shape of Jundallah, the "Army of God", with links in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and regarded as a terrorist group in Washington as well as Tehran.
Jundallah's leader, Abdolmalek Rigi was captured in February 2010, was tried and pleaded guilty to being responsible for more than 150 killings, and was executed in June.
The removal of Rigi has not put an end to Jundallah. The group claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing targeting the Shi'ite Grand Mosque in Zahedan on June 15, five days before Rigi's execution. The attack left 27 people dead and 300 injured.
Jundallah's existence may have led the Iranian government to conclude that building local leadership around Islamic structures alone, and hoping moderate Sunni leaders would restrain the radicals, had failed as a tactic.
Mianeh has learned from confidential sources that following Rigi's arrest, a number of individuals, some Baloch but also some local Shi'ite officials were arrested for diverting governmental and private funds to his group; others were dismissed from their jobs. Many of these individuals were not aware where the money was going, and believed it would be used for schools and mosques.
In 2007, police discovered explosives in a religious school for women in Khash, shortly before President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was due to make his tour of Sistan-Balochistan.
Another local expert, who asked to remain anonymous, told Mianeh that despite Maulana Abdulhamid's overall leadership, he was never in a position to control the whole of the clergy and all the madrassas, as these were decentralized. Traditionally anyone with the title "maulana", denoting a mullah with some advanced education, could operate fairly independently.
"For this reason, Maulana Abdulhamid's influence and authority as a government-backed maulana is conditional on him being accepted by his [clerical] peers, and depends also on what power and position they hold," said the expert.
With the regime now exerting mounting pressure on the Sunni clergy of Sistan-Balochistan, one outcome may be that it starts turning to other elites for support, as was the case before the revolution
"The government's failed policy of relying on Maulana Abdulhamid and the religious stratum of the Baloch community as a whole could become a starting-point for a change in overall policy towards the Baloch people, a large and diverse community," the analyst said.
Another reason why the Shi'ite-led regime is suspicious of the Sunni clerics is their international contacts. Many trained in Pakistani madrassas and colleges and maintain ties with their old fellow-students.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are home to fundamentalists who promote hostility towards Shi'ite Muslims.
Sunni clerics also travel frequently to other parts of Muslim world, meeting not only their counterparts but also political leaders, including those of the Arabian Peninsula.
For them, it is an opportunity to bolster their position at home and on occasion to bargain chips with the regime. Mianeh understands that in 2005, for example, Maulana Abdulhamid offered to intercede with the Saudi government to get a Shi'ite mosque built in Medina. He made the offer in talks with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was seeking endorsement in that year's presidential election. Rafsanjani turned the offer down flat and walked out of the meeting.
The Iranian regime accuses certain Arab states of covertly backing Baloch insurgents including Jundallah.
Aware of the risk that some of the 60 loosely-governed madrassas in Sistan-Balochistan could be teaching Sunni fundamentalism, the Iranian government is pursuing a plan to bring them under unified control. Conceived in 2008, the plan envisages oversight over curriculum content and tracking their funding sources.
The plan was put on hold because of opposition from local clergy. In a March 2009 sermon, Esmail-Zehi described the reforms as "interference in the religious and educational affairs of the Sunni community".
The scheme was kick-started again after last year's presidential election, at which point a number of clerics were detained, questioned or placed under travel bans. Among those detained was Molavi Ahmad Narouyi, the interim Friday prayers leader in Zahedan.
The government is clearly concerned at its inability to keep tabs on funds held and spent by Sunni clerics. It cannot legally do so, just as it cannot control funds held by Shi'ite clerics.
But in Sistan-Balochistan, where a network of schools and seminaries are attended by visiting students from Afghanistan and Tajikistan as well as by locals, the last thing the regime wants is to play host to Pakistan-style recruitment offices for a Sunni jihad.
Amineh Soghdi is an Iranian journalist based in Kerman, Iran.
(This article originally appeared in Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Used with permission.)