By Babak Dehghanpisheh
Fridays in southeastern Iran have become days of rage and resistance. As they have for weeks, protesters marched through the streets after Friday prayers in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan province, which has become a pivotal front in the anti-government uprising sweeping Iran.
In one video posted on social media, hundreds of men walk together through the dusty streets chanting “Death to Khamenei,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A video from a different part of the city shows a smaller group of women demonstrating: “Whether with hijab or without hijab, we’re going toward revolution,” they chant in unison. In another clip, shots can be heard in the background.
The protesters are followers of Molavi Abdol Hamid Ismaeelzahi, widely known in Iran as Molavi Abdol Hamid, the most prominent Sunni cleric in a country ruled by a Shiite theocratic government. There are few public figures in Iran who have the temerity to challenge the authorities in Tehran, but Molavi Abdol Hamid is among them. His increasingly bold calls for accountability and political dialogue have galvanized protesters in Zahedan and across the ethnic Baluch heartland, long one of the poorest parts of the country.
In his Friday sermon, he beseeched the government to allow space for peaceful protests: “Sit with your opponents, sit with critics,” he said. “The path of criticism should never be blocked. Because whoever blocks the path of criticism … will bring tyranny.”
Zahedan was the site of the bloodiest crackdown by Iranian security forces since nationwide demonstrations began in mid-September. On Sept. 30, after Molavi Abdol Hamid delivered his sermon, protesters poured into the streets chanting “Death to the dictator,” a rallying cry that had begun to echo across the nation since the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, in the custody of Iran’s “morality police.”
But on that day, now known as “Bloody Friday,” security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing at least 66 people, according to Amnesty International. Other human rights groups put the death toll far higher.
The crackdown was meant as a message to the protesters, who were mostly ethnic Baluch, and to Molavi Abdol Hamid, analysts and activists say.
But rather than back down, the cleric immediately demanded that security forces responsible for the killings be brought to justice and that authorities heed protesters’ calls for change.
And he has not stopped: Week after week, Molavi Abdol Hamid has used his Friday sermon at the Makki mosque in Zahedan to ramp up pressure on the government, though he does not mention Khamenei by name.
“We died but we didn’t kill anybody,” he said Friday. “And we won’t allow anyone to kill anybody else. Just allow speech so people can talk. I didn’t want anything from [the government], what I wanted was that those who shot people be punished.”
Last month, Molavi Abdol Hamid called for a referendum to meet protesters’ demands, a suggestion that would be unthinkable from any other public figure.
“He has a stature that makes him almost untouchable for the regime,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University.
Molavi Abdol Hamid has been an outspoken figure in Iran for many years, seen as a leader of the Baluch minority as well as the broader Sunni community, but his statements since the protests began represent an unprecedented challenge to a government that permits no dissent.
Khamenei appears to be taking the threat seriously. Last week, a hacker group called Black Reward issued a statement on its Telegram channel saying it had hacked the Fars news agency, which is linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Among the leaked items was a confidential message from Khamenei to the country’s security forces advising that Molavi Abdol Hamid “should not be arrested. But he should be dishonored.”
The Washington Post could not independently confirm the veracity of the message, but experts say it is consistent with past efforts by the government to undermine reformist figures.
Milani interpreted the message to mean, “We just have to tarnish his reputation. In other words first weaken him in the public eye then maybe we can arrest or kill him.”
Over the past month, the crackdown on ordinary Baluchis has intensified. Special units of the Revolutionary Guard have been sent to Sistan and Baluchistan from other provinces, activists say. The situation in many cities resembles martial law, they say, with checkpoints and patrols by security forces.
On Nov. 4, Amnesty said security forces killed at least 18 “protesters, bystanders and worshippers, including two children” after Friday prayers in the city of Khash, south of Zahedan.
“The number of people killed in Baluchistan and in Kurdish regions is much higher than central parts of Iran. It’s because the political cost is lower there,” said Mahmoud Amiry-Moghaddam, director of the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights.
Authorities have also ramped up arrests of protesters, with families receiving little or no information about those detained, many of whom are minors. The central jail in Zahedan is overflowing, activists say, with prisoners crammed into spaces that do not have proper facilities and are not intended for housing detainees.
There are also reports of mistreatment and torture. One detainee who was brought into court in Zahedan had his fingernails and toenails pulled out and could not stand up properly, said Shirahmad Shirani, a Baluch human rights activist who has spent many years in prison.
“They want to continue the security situation,” Shirani said. “Baluchistan differs from all parts of the country.”
Molavi Abdol Hamid addressed the abuses during his Friday sermon. “Don’t execute or kill the protesters,” he urged. “Don’t beat them up. Free them.”
But with the government showing no sign of moderating, analysts fear the crackdown on protesters could inspire an armed uprising. Zahedan’s proximity to the Afghan and Pakistani borders could allow for easy access to weapons, they say.
“There’s a limit to how much people will take,” Milani said. “I think one of the reasons it hasn’t happened is that they know that’s what the regime wants. The regime wants to turn this into something they can unleash their wrath on.”