After nearly two months in captivity, four Iranian soldiers were released April 4 by the militant Islamist group Jaish al-Adl.
The news was a surprise to the many who had followed their story. The guards were captured in February on the Iran-Pakistan border while sleeping in a tent. Iranian and Pakistani authorities have traded accusations of negligence ever since the kidnapping.
On March 24, the Sunni Baluch terrorist group claimed to have killed one of the hostages because Iran had refused to release hundreds of prisoners. His body has not yet been returned, nor has an image of his body been shown. The group, which claims to be fighting for Sunni and Baluch rights in Iran, first became known in October 2013, when they killed 14 Iranian border guards in an ambush.
The release of the soldiers was handled at the local level. The governor of Sistan and Baluchistan province, Ali Osat-Hashemi, thanked regional clerics and village elders specifically for securing their release.
Since the release of the hostages, several government officials, including Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, have published letters thanking the Sunni clerics for their efforts. One of the representatives in the parliament, Ali Motahari, has asked his fellow parliament members not to disregard the important role that the Sunni religious leaders played in ensuring the release of the four remaining border guards.
Though the names of the clerics involved were rarely mentioned, Molavi AbdolHamid, one of the most prominent leaders of the Sunni community of the south and the southwest of Iran, was one of the main figures. A moderate politician, he rejects violence and has thus gained the respect and attention of important leaders in Iran. After President Hassan Rouhani’s electoral victory in June, one of the first figures he met, even before assuming office, was Abdolhamid.
Aboldhamid is the director of the Darululoom Zahedan Islamic and Learning University of Zahedan, the largest Sunni seminary in Iran and the Friday Prayer imam of the city of Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan province, which has a large population of Sunni Baluch Iranians.
AbdolHamid has also been a vocal critic of how the government has chosen to deal with regional and minority issues, and has asked for an end to discrimination against the Sunni religious minority of Iran. In the past, he asked the government to stop the execution of political prisoners, in particular the 26 Sunni Kurd prisoners in Rajayi Shahr prison.
In an exclusive phone interview with Al-Monitor, AbdolHamid talked about the efforts of the citizen delegations in freeing the hostages, the Rouhani administration’s efforts thus far to address minority rights, the situation of Sunnis in Iran and the use of violence, whether by militant groups or the state.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: Sunni religious scholars such as yourself and others were able to play an effective role in the release of the hostages. What is it about the the positions of Sunni religious leaders that they were able to play this role while at the same time promoting national unity and improving the conditions of the Baluch citizens in the region? What is their position among the people? Do people support them?
AboldHamid: Sunni religious leaders play a very important role in ensuring national security and unity. People have a particular affection for their religious leaders and support them. It was obvious during the elections that people vote for the candidate supported by the religious leaders. Sunni, and Baluch Sunni, citizens particularly trust their religious leaders and support them. Religious leaders feel the same way. This is what happened during this recent hostage crisis: Religious leaders felt it was their religious and national duty to help solve this issue. The border guards were taken hostage and the government officials asked us to follow up on the issue, and they collaborated with us. Other religious leaders also stepped forward and followed up and helped solve this issue.
Al-Monitor: So the government contacted you and the others and asked you to get involved?
AboldHamid: Yes, they contacted us and asked us to do whatever we could to solve this issue.
Al-Monitor: As you know, Jaish al-Adl had certain demands, which included the release of the prisoners and an end to the executions. Were those demands granted? Did the government show any sign of flexibility regarding those demands?
AboldHamid: No. However, it should be mentioned that the delegation that negotiated with Jaish al-Adl was a citizen delegation and not a government one. This citizen delegation tried very hard to convince them to drop their demands, and it was out of respect for this delegation that they released the border guards. God be praised, the efforts were successful and without giving them any advantages or granting any of their demands, the issue was solved.
Al-Monitor: What is your opinion about the government’s claim that foreign powers were involved in this crisis? Basically, the government insists that these groups are connected to foreign governments or agents. What do you think?
AboldHamid: When these groups leave the country, they usually turn to violence, and others might contact them. Given the recent conflicts in the Middle East and among the Muslim governments, it is likely that there are attempts to provoke these groups for personal benefit. Yes, it is possible.
Al-Monitor: What do you think are the reasons behind the existence of these militant groups in the region?
AboldHamid: There might be different reasons and motivations that have led to the creation of these groups in the region. They themselves put forward a variety of reasons for their actions. However, I think that ensuring justice is the most effective way to end the violence and insecurity in the region. Nothing is as effective as justice in ensuring long-lasting security and national unity. If we have justice, insecurity and violence will decrease.
Al-Monitor: Do you think that by choosing Mr. Ali Younesi as the president’s adviser on minority affairs, the new administration is trying to solve the problems? For example, the administration has chosen two Sunni ladies as top officials of the province.
AboldHamid: Yes, the new administration has tried to deliver on promises made during the election campaigns, and we should remember that this administration hasn’t had much time yet. All religious and ethnic groups in Iran are hoping that this new administration stays true to its promises. Delivering on these promises will be very important in ensuring the participation of all different religious and ethnic groups in the affairs of the country, and it will also be very important in ensuring stability and national unity. Mr. Younesi is an intelligent and knowledgeable person who has the experience of working in the Ministry of Intelligence. He is influential and he does follow the issues, but also, as you mentioned, now we have a woman deputy governor and district administrator, which shows that the participation level of women has also increased.
Al-Monitor: You previously mentioned that if there is justice, militant groups can no longer function. Can you tell us a little about the demands of the Baluch and the Sunni minorities of Iran? What is the most important demand of the people in your region?
AboldHamid: Their demands are all legal, and their expectations never go beyond the law. We ask for religious freedom based on the constitution, which is accepted by all Iranians. We ask for meritocracy and equality between different ethnic and religious groups. We are one nation, and we should all be treated the same way. This is what people demand.
Al-Monitor: You criticized the executions in Sistan and Baluchistan.
Al-Monitor: Please tell us your opinion about the following issue: Sometimes, when people are forced to commit a crime out of poverty, their punishment might not be as severe. At the same time, however, we have people like Mr. Yaghub MehrNahad, a journalist and cultural activist, who was sentenced to death in court and was eventually executed.
AboldHamid: I do not accept violence under any circumstances. We believe that by turning to violence and creating instability, these groups have made a mistake. We strongly oppose these methods and believe that using legal and international methods of negotiation and discussion are the best ways to demand one's rights. I have the same opinion regarding execution. From our religious point of view, heavy punishments such as executions are not suitable, and if such punishments do exist, they should be very limited and used only when there are no other alternatives. We don’t believe that anything positive can result from these types of punishments, and I have repeatedly mentioned this in the past.