For Iran’s Sunnis, the war to save Assad is not theirs
Washington - On the surface, there was nothing unusual about the funeral procession carrying the bodies of “martyred guardians of the shrine” Hossein-Ali Kiani and Aqil Shibak to their final resting place in Zahedan, capital of Sistan- Baluchestan province in south-eastern Iran.
As befits the martyred “volunteers” for Iran’s war effort in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar Assad, the procession on April 16th was led by local grandees, such as Ayatollah Abbas Ali Suleimani, representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the Sunni majority province; and Ali Owsat Hashemi, the governor-general.
But all is not what it seems.
The day before the funerals, Zahedan Press, the main local news agency, complained of the cold reception the bodies of the two returning Shia martyrs received when the plane carrying them landed at the city’s airport. There was no military guard of honour and only a few close relatives of the deceased were present to carry the coffins.
Kaghaz-e Akhbar, a local newspaper, complained about the non-participation of the province’s Sunni population in the funeral procession and expressed the hope that “God willing, we shall witness the presence of these dear ones (the Sunnis) in the forthcoming commemoration series so that we can demonstrate our unity to the world”.
In Sistan-Baluchestan, the blatant Sunni boycott of the funerals was seen as a humiliating embarrassment. After all, Khamenei, perhaps in an attempt to play down the sectarian aspect of the Syrian war and appeal to Iran’s Sunnis, consistently calls the conflict a “struggle between Islam and heresy”.
But that is a narrative that clearly does not resonate with Iran’s Sunni population, particularly in Sistan-Baluchistan, where regime forces have been battling separatist groups for years in a low-intensity, but frequently brutal, insurgency.
In an attempt to give credence to the supreme leader’s narrative of sacrifice against Sunni jihadists, the government’s propaganda machine had previously pulled out all the stops to provide extensive coverage of the November 2015 burials of Salman Barjesteh, Morad Abdollahi and Omar Molla-Zehi, three Sunni natives of Sistan-Baluchestan killed in the Syrian conflict.
Esmaeel Molla-Zehi, the father of Omar, was granted a meeting with Khamenei on March 10th at which the supreme leader said: “Today, we have among us Sunni brethren who are fighting in defence of the ahl-e beyt (household of the Prophet, a reference to Shia imams) and are being killed as martyrs… And when they visit us, instead of displaying sorrow, sadness or complaint, their families express pride in their sons being martyred in this path.”
More recently, the regime’s propagandists have been aggrandising a hitherto little heard of military unit, the Nabavioun Brigade, which is allegedly composed of Iranian Sunnis who “volunteer” for the war in Syria to keep the Assad regime in power.
While the existence of such a military unit is, at the very least, questionable, it seems to have propaganda value that Tehran is eager to exploit to demonstrate sectarian unity behind the war effort.
However, even tales of the mystery unit’s merits further reflect Sunni unhappiness with the regime’s conduct in Syria. Raja News, one of the mouthpieces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), disclosed in a December 28th, 2015, report on the Nabavioun Brigade that the Sunni population in Sistan-Baluchestan considered the war in Syria a “slaughter of fellow Muslims”.
That opinion, said Raja News, changed after the “martyrdom” of the three Sunni Iranian volunteers to Syria. But the Sunni boycott of “martyr” burials in Sistan-Baluchestan suggests otherwise.
Supporting the Syrian dictator has never been a popular cause in Iran but the savagery of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the IRGC’s warnings that Iranians will eventually have to fight the group on Iranian soil if it is not defeated in Syria and Iraq has to some degree persuaded Iran’s Shia-majority public to support the military engagement in Syria.
That does not extend to Iran’s Sunni minority, which draws parallels between the Assad regime’s suppression of their co-religionists in Syria and the Tehran regime’s suppression of the Islamic Republic’s Sunnis.
In the end, Tehran’s propaganda effort seems to have further alienated Iran’s Sunni population rather than persuaded its members to support military intervention in Syria morally or materially.