Mawlana Abdolhamid, an influential religious leader within Iran’s minority Sunni community, publicly blamed Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for violence targeting Sunni Iranians during a sermon on Friday—an open challenge to the government only one week after demonstrations in Iran’s southeastern Baluchestan region were crushed by security forces.
In his sermon, Abdolhamid referenced the attacks on Baluchis within Zahedan, the capital of the Baluchestan province, in mid-October. At least ninety civilians are thought to have been killed in the violence, many of them by units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. The cleric emphasized in his remarks that repression by regime security forces would not solve the problems at the root of Iran’s ongoing political crisis.
“Beating and killing the people is not the solution to the province’s problems,” Abdolhamid said, referring to Iranian authorities. “No one can evade their responsibility for the massacre of the people of Zahedan.”
Iranian officials have downplayed and sought to justify the violence in Zahedan, minimizing the death toll and claiming that the demonstrators who had been killed were armed. Iran’s state-aligned Tasnim news agency has also emphasized the death toll among the security forces, claiming that five members of the IRGC were killed in Zahedan during the violence. However, Abdolhamid noted in his remarks that the security forces had suffered far lighter casualties than the demonstrators, suggesting the demonstrators were unarmed.
Sunnis make up roughly 10 percent of Iran’s population and are concentrated in Baluchestan. Iran’s Sunni population has experienced recurring tensions with the Shia majority, particularly with the Shia clerical government. In the past, Abdolhamid has often criticized government officials, accusing them of engaging in widespread discrimination against Sunnis, and he claimed in his sermon that the Baluchis had been “the victims of discrimination for forty-three years,” or since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Iran’s ongoing protest movement began last month after Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman from northwestern Iran, died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Although the Iranian government insisted that Amini had suffered a heart attack, eyewitnesses and her family claimed that she had been fatally beaten during her arrest. The ensuing wave of protests spread to nearly all Iranian cities, quickly becoming the country’s largest protest movement since 2009 and prompting a severe government crackdown.
Trevor Filseth is a current foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.