A senior Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) commander has been assassinated in Iran’s restive Sistan and Baluchestan Province, the Iranian media reports. According to I.R.G.C.-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, Ruhollah A’ali, an I.R.G.C. battalion commander in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchestan, was “martyred” by “Takfiri terrorists” last night. Takfiri is a term Iranian leaders use for Sunni militants. The commander was affiliated with the I.R.G.C.’s 110th Salman Brigade in the province. The two assassins were reportedly killed by Basij forces.

Comment: The southeastern Sistan and Baluchestan Province has suffered low-intensity insurgency, separatism, drug trafficking and other security problems for decades. But the latest killing of a senior I.R.G.C. commander must be particularly worrying for Iranian military leaders as it comes just days after the Islamic State issued a rare video threatening to attack and conquer Iran. The video clip in Persian language directly appealed to Iran’s Sunni minority to rebel against the Shiite-dominated regime in the country.

The Iranian media has not disclosed the identity of the perpetrators, and the attackers may not be related to or even inspired by the Islamic State. But the assassination discredits I.R.G.C. leaders’ assertion that their costly military adventurism in Syria and Iraq has guaranteed security and stability inside Iran. Read moreover, although the majority of Iranian Sunnis – despite suffering repression and marginalization for decades – have so far resisted calls by radical groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda to join their ranks and have remained loyal to their country, the high-profile assassination allegedly by Sunni militants indicates the Sistan and Balunchestan area remains a potential hotbed for anti-state terrorism. 

Sistan and Baluchestan, one of Iran’s most impoverished province, shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan and is a key drug trafficking route in the region. The Iranian government considers the restive region a top security priority. Hundreds of Iranian security forces have been killed in the fight against insurgents and drug smugglers in the province over the past decade. And the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan and its potential spillover into Iran’s Sunni-majority southeast has forced the Iranian government to pay more attention to the once-neglected region. Both the I.R.G.C.’s ground forces and the Basij units have conducted large-scale military exercises in the southeastern region in the past one year.   

Sunni Baluchs, who constitute a majority of the population in the province, have long suffered state-sanctioned discrimination, economic marginalization, cultural repression, disproportionate executions, torture, detention without trials and extra-judicial killings. While I.R.G.C. generals often talk about the implementation of large-scale development projects in the region, Baloch residents of the region say they have not benefited from such programs. They also claim that the government continues to rule them with an iron hand.

In February, the top religious leader of Iran’s Sunni minority wrote to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to express his community’s concern over reports of a “secret order” issued by the country’s Judiciary to speed up the execution of Sunni death-row prisoners. Last year, an Iranian lawmaker revealed that about 5,000 prisoners were awaiting execution in Iranian jails, and 90 percent of them were first-time drugs offenders between the ages of 20 and 30.