Zahedan, Iran // As Iran’s chief negotiators were in Vienna working on a deal with world powers over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, President Hassan Rouhani was in one of his country’s most troubled provinces consoling the young widow of an Iranian border guard killed by militants.
Amid the vast crowds in an amphitheatre in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchestan, Mr Rouhani spoke briefly with Elham Nezamdost, whose husband Jamshid was killed by Jaish-ul-Adl, (Army of Justice) a Sunni militant group, after they captured him in early February, while he was patrolling the frontier with Pakistan.
Mr Rouhani, cradled the couple’s baby in his arms as he spoke to the young Omidreza, who was born a month after his father was detained. In the short encounter with the president, Mrs Nezamdost, who appeared overwhelmed by the ordeal, asked Mr Rouhani to continue looking for him, as she still believes her husband is alive.
Mr Rouhani has used his first 8 months in power trying to transform Iran’s relations with the Arab world and the West with the aim of ending his country’s economic isolation.
Last week, however, was all about reinforcing his popularity at home.
On Tuesday, more than 100 ministers, aides, journalists and security guards boarded the Islamic republic’s presidential airplane in Tehran, joining Mr Rouhani on a trip to the country’s largest, most remote and volatile region.
Sistan and Baluchestan, a province about the size of Syria, shares borders with both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The province consists of many ethnic and religious minorities, and is home to several militant groups and heavy drug trafficking. It suffers more violence than any other part of Iran as evidenced by the security surrounding the president, which was much tighter than Mr Rouhani’s previous provincial trips to Khuzestan and Hormozgan. Not only was he surrounded by guards, but four snipers kept watch at all times.
Many Baluchis who do not support local agitators and Sunni militant groups in the province agree with the central government’s contention that foreign forces fund these groups.
Iran accuses a combination of foreign powers, including the United States, Israel and its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, of supporting ethnic Baluch militancy.
“The development of the region and creating detente with our Sunni neighbouring countries are the only ways to improve security in the province,” said Narges Barahoi, a Tehran-based expert on Sistan and Baluchestan affairs.
Most people in the province live in mud brick houses. There are no motorways connecting the cities and there is not even a single movie theatre.
“Poverty itself can be a reason leading to insecurity and riots,” Ms Barahoi said.
During Mr Rouhani’s intensive two-day trip, he met many government officials, military commanders, Sunni and Shia religious leaders, women’s groups, Baluchi elites, investors, artists, athletes, and families of soldiers killed in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.
There were also moments of seemingly spontaneous personal connection.
At a local university, a group of female students ran out of a campus building and gathered alongside the road as Mr Rouhani’s car passed. They caught his attention and he got out of the car and spoke with them, listening to their problems and requests.
“I just asked him to turn our requests for creating new jobs in our city into reality,” said Farzaneh Afshar, 25, who is studying to be a teacher. She burst into tears while talking to the president. Ms Afshar said she could not believe she was able to meet the president in person.
Mr Rouhani spent hours listening to officials discussing the problems of the province and its citizens, but such encounters only scratched the surface of Sistan and Baluchistan’s deeply rooted problems.
In an effort to communicate with Iranians in a more efficient way, Mr Rouhani ordered the establishment of a local call centre to record people’s requests and complaints.
The centre was launched during his trip to Sistan and Baluchestan and will stay open permanently.
For the first time in the Islamic Republic’s history, Mr Rouhani’s administration appointed three Sunni Bluchi women as governors of strategically important border towns in Sistan and Baluchestan.
Still, the challenges of the province are vast. And the hope that followed Mr Rouhani’s election is diminishing, as it is in other parts of Iran.
Despite Mr Rouhani’s campaign trail promises to improve Iran’s economic situation, the country’s inflation rate was 34.7 per cent last year. The country is still experiencing instability in its currency and also steep unemployment.
“He spoke well and made so many good promises, but we are certain that more than half of them will never take place,” said Hashem Tanha, 62, a bus driver in the city of Zabol, which borders Afghanistan.