ZAHEDAN, SOUTHEAST IRAN — Iran could be facing a security threat on its frontier with Afghanistan every bit as dangerous as that facing Pakistan. Officials fear that the US-led attacks could generate so much anger among local tribes and Afghan refugees that the security forces would have trouble controlling it.
Security in eastern Iran is traditionally tight - and has been bolstered by extra police units in the past week. But residents of Zahedan, a strategic provincial capital 20 miles from the Afghan border, fear that civil unrest could grow as militants from the Baluchi tribe protest American military strikes.
"There is great danger for the Islamic Republic of Iran," says one local Iranian businessman. "There is so much sympathy for the Taliban here."
Iranian officials want to avert a repetition of violence that broke out in Zahedan on Oct. 12 - and took even the security forces by surprise - when the government allowed the public for the first time to vent its anger at the US-led strikes.
Crowds of angry youths, both Baluchi and Afghan, screamed their opposition to the attacks. Their first target was the Pakistani consulate, bombarded with a hail of stones and abuse. "Musharraf is a traitor," the crowd screamed. "Hang him!" Armed police fired live rounds to disperse the crowd, killing one protester.
Many demonstrators declared their willingness to fight a holy war against America. "If the ulema [clergy] give us the order for jihad, we will take up arms," said Gholam Reza Yacubi, a volunteer mosque worker. "If there is a war against Islam, we are ready to fight."
By noon, a crowd of 20,000 had gathered at the Jameh Maqqi, the largest Sunni mosque in town. They read from a leaflet that accused "the uncivilized and barbaric Europeans" of "looting the Muslim world." Fired up by an inflammatory sermon, the crowd mobbed Western journalists, chanting the mantras of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution: "Marg bar Amrika! Marg bar Israel!" (Death to America! Death to Israel!)
Even before the Afghan crisis, Sistan-Baluchistan was the most sensitive of Iran's border regions. Militant Sunni extremists, accused by Iranian officials of orchestrating bomb attacks on prominent Shia targets, have clashed with Iran's armed forces in the past. The province also hosts thousands of Afghan refugees.
In addition, Baluchi drug traffickers frequently fight pitched battles with the Iranian military.
Under international pressure, Iran has stepped up its battle against the smugglers. Over the past month, it has drafted some 30,000 extra police and troops to its eastern provinces, ostensibly to seal the border against an influx of Afghan refugees. In key towns like Zahedan, however, riot police and Islamic Revolutionary Guards are now deployed as much to maintain domestic security as to guard against a refugee influx.