Navigating the Intersection of Religion and Economy in Iranian Baluchistan

Meet the complex socio-economic relations of Baluchistan. 

Nestled within the arid landscapes of the south-eastern Iranian plateau, Baluchistan emerges as a region characterized by a profound tribal heritage, intricately shaped by historical struggles against poverty and discrimination within a securitized environment. Extending from the Kerman desert in Iran to the Beshagard mountains and the western borders of the Sind and Punjab provinces of present-day Pakistan, Baluchistan stands as an exemplar of a complex socio-political evolution, marked by the convergence of religious and economic elites. Since the early 19th century, the term “Baluchistan” has denoted a geographically diverse area situated between Iran, the Indian Ocean, the subcontinent, and Central Asia. This region showcases diverse landscapes, including rugged mountain chains in the north and northeast, high arid rocky plateaux, expansive semi-deserts, fluvial plains in the center, and sand deserts in the south.

Baluchistan’s historical narrative stems from its nomadic roots and tribal structure, a dynamic that found itself at the crossroads of Iran and colonial India during the late 19th century. Beyond its Baluch inhabitants, the region showcases significant ethnic diversity, encompassing Brohi Arabs, Jats, Kurds, and descendants of East African slaves. This intricate mosaic of cultures has played a pivotal role in shaping contemporary Baloch social values, with pastoral ecology and tribalism leaving an indelible imprint on the distinctive Baloch ethnic identity. Simultaneously, the inhabitants coexist within a multi-faith society, where the Sunni majority lives alongside minority Shia, Sikh, and Bahai communities, fostering a space characterized by religious coexistence.

Colonial Complexities and Centralization

The same with this: The geopolitical intricacies of Baluchistan were further heightened by European interests, particularly the British quest for control over India. The 19th-century rivalries between the French and the British led to the British taking control of Baluchistan, setting the stage for tense dynamics between Iranian and British authorities. This territorial division between Iran and Pakistan, underscored by the arid landscapes of Iranian Baluchistan, serves as a testament to the region’s geopolitical complexities, which continue until today, considering, for instance, Chabahar port, which is a strategic entrance connecting India to the Caspian Sea, Russia, and Northern Europe.

Established in 1930, the Sistan–Baluchistan province in the southeast of Iran is bordered by Southern Khorasan to the north, the Sea of Oman to the south, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, and the regions of Kirman and Hormozgan to the west. With an expansive area of approximately 187,500 square kilometers, it stands as Iran’s largest administrative subdivision, with Baluchistan claiming 172,307 square kilometers. This region encompasses around 11.5% of the country’s total territory, with a population of 2,405,742 at the 2006 census (3.6 percent of Iran’s total). Owing to the enlarged territorial expanse, authorities in Tehran have endeavored to partition the province into smaller entities. However, this proposition has met staunch resistance from Baluch communities, who vehemently criticize the policy, perceiving it as a divisive measure undermining the unity of their community and eradicating the distinct identity associated with the name of Baluchistan.

The economic tribulations of Baluchistan unfolded against a backdrop of government indifference, forced taxation, and the exploitation of agricultural products. The advent of the Pahlavi regime (1925-1975) centralized control, suppressing local autonomy and intensifying socio-economic disparities. This era witnessed a growing rift between Baluch and non-Baluch communities, particularly as most markets fell under non-Baluch control. The majority, historically engaged in farming, faced a tremorous shift in the 1990s as the agricultural sector’s role in employment diminished due to the drought, making way for increased Baloch involvement in fishing, especially in the Chabahar region. A succession of droughts occurring between 1998 and 2005 had a profound impact on the landscape, resulting in the significant loss of 800,000 head of cattle and 93,000 hectares of cultivated land in the Iranian region of Sistan–Baluchistan. Periodic or sporadic disasters, such as dramatic floods and droughts, underscore the scarcity and volatility of the region’s natural resources, emphasizing the crucial importance of water.

Baluch Elites 

Within Baluchistan’s societal tapestry, elites play a pivotal role, and their influence is categorized into traditional, economic, academic, and religious spheres. Traditional tribal chiefs (known as Sardar or Khan), once powerful, saw their influence decline post-Islamic Revolution, contrasting with the ascent of economic elites who wielded power through accumulated wealth. Religious elites, known as Molavi, traditionally excluded from political participation during the Pahlavi era, experienced a resurgence in the Islamic Republic.Their influence extended beyond religious realms, actively participating in articulating Baluch demands to the government and resolving crises

The Islamisation of the Baluch community brought with it another major shift in the societal hierarchy as the local Sardars and Khans (the chiefs and protectors of tribes) were replaced by the religious hierarchy between the 1930s and 1950s. This transformation did not totally wash away the role of the tribal hierarchy but added a new social role to the Sunni clerics, permitted them to be more involved in the daily life of the Baluch community, and provided them enough authority to intervene in socio-political and economic affairs. 

During the 1970s, Tehran appeared to view the emerging networks of Sunni religious circles as potential defenses against both Soviet and Saudi influence in its eastern region. Previously perceived as a potential threat to Iran’s security, the cross-border tribal and religious networks of the Baluch in the south, but also Persian-speaking cross-border tribal populations in Khorasan, gradually gained recognition in Tehran as potential agents for social stability. Simultaneously, these networks were seen as enhancing Iran’s influence in various Sunni buffer zones across Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Rising Capital and the Growing Influence of Religious Elites

The Baluch migration to Arab states for work brought money into Baluchistan. Many of those temporary Baluch workers return after one or two years and could improve their financial situation in Iran with their savings. Beside supporting their families, the financial contributions of those Baluch returnees were notably directed towards religious activities and institutions. This intriguing interplay created a symbiotic relationship between economic and religious elites. While economic elites served the cause of religion, religious elites efficiently managed their relations with their economic counterparts, creating a mutual benefit. This interconnectedness is epitomized in urban areas, where religious institutions maintain independence from the state, promoting their ideas and services. Mosques, funded by these contributions, evolved into not just places of worship but influential centers for local politics precisely after the 1999 City Council election. 

All in all, this alliance between religious and economic elites has helped the religious institutions grow and maintain independence from the state, becoming the voice of the Baluch community. However, as protested by some Baluch intellectuals in the contemporary time, while the wealthy elites contributed to the religious communities and their norms, they failed to use their resources to invest in educational elements of their society, advancing political and civil institutions. Although this claim is true, there are some elements of those religious communities to help their society occasionally. In a certain way, the given religious institution established its own charity organization to also provide financial support for poor families living in the province, neglected, and forgotten by the state. Additionally, the Sunni religious elites, especially through their influential institutions, managed to become a tribune to reflect the lives of Baluch and their traditional and religious identity. 

In Iranian Baluchistan, the synergy between religion and economy has been pivotal in shaping the region’s trajectory. The convergence of economic and religious elites has transformed mosques and religious schools into not only places of worship but also hubs of socio-political influence. Grasping this intricate relationship is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the economic landscape and power structures that delineate Iranian Baluchistan today. The enthralling interplay of history, tribal dynamics, and the convergence of religious and economic forces constitutes a significant aspect of Baluch communities in Iran.