Ongoing unrest in Iran's southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan is troubling regime officials, as demonstrated by reported internet outages Thursday (February 25) following a mass shooting by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) earlier in the week.
On Monday, security forces and members of the IRGC shot at a number of fuel carriers near the town of Saravan on the Iran-Pakistan border.
The IRGC had blocked a road used to transport fuel before apparently opening fire at Iranians attempting to reopen the route, said Human Rights Watch (HRW).
At least 10 people were killed and five wounded in the shooting, said HRW, citing Baluch activists; however, other casualty estimates were much higher.
On Tuesday, a large number of local residents, including families of those injured or killed, responded to the shootings by storming the gubernatorial building in Saravan and torching a police car. Protests continued through Wednesday.
While officials Thursday stated that the situation in Saravan was "under control", reports of continuing outages of mobile internet connection reveal that the regime fears further unrest.
Several mobile network operators shut down internet access in different parts of the province, including Zahedan and Saravan, a digital rights researcher reported.
According to official statistics, more than 95% of internet users in the province rely on mobile service, HRW said. Authorities ordered the disruption of internet access in the area in light of the protests, several activists have said.
On Friday, following the victims' burial, the IRGC started tightening security in the area, including in Zahedan. Back-up IRGC forces arrived in Zahedan on Friday, Persian-language expatriate media reported.
HRW, Amnesty condemn attack
HRW called on Iran to investigate the government security forces' alleged use of excessive force in Monday's shooting.
"The Iranian authorities should urgently conduct a transparent and impartial investigation into the shootings at the Saravan border," said HRW Iran researcher Tara Sepehrifar.
"The authorities should hold those responsible for wrongdoing to account, appropriately compensate victims and ensure that border guards are taking the utmost precautions to respect the right to life and other human rights."
Amnesty International condemned the attack in a February 24 social media post, saying: "Alarming footage and reports have emerged from inside Iran indicating that Iranian security forces shot and killed a number of fuel porters in Sistan and Baluchestan province."
It is investigating the incident, it said.
Provincial deputy governor Mohammad-Hadi Marashi Tuesday said that the shooting had started from the Pakistani side of the border and that one person had been killed and four wounded, AFP reported.
Saravan is a major town in the arid, impoverished province of Sistan and Baluchestan. Many of its residents are members of the Baluch ethnic minority, which also populates the neighbouring regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The province has long been a security headache for the Iranian government.
While transferring fuel across the southern Iranian border is not a new development, it has been on the rise in Sistan and Baluchestan with Iran's national currency in free fall and the resulting increase in the value of foreign currency.
Fuel is exceptionally cheap in Iran thanks to heavy government subsidies.
Many locals attempt to sell Iranian fuel in Pakistan for a profit because of Sistan and Baluchestan's dismal economic state, high unemployment rate and palpable poverty, a fact that state officials do not deny.
As such, local police and border patrol forces recently stated that they had received orders not to shoot at fuel carriers. It is unclear, however, why security forces fired at a number of carriers on Monday.
Residents are not the only party to benefit from fuel sale proceeds. Fuel is regularly transported in large quantities out of Sistan and Baluchestan aboard pick-up trucks whose drivers cross the border unchallenged, reportedly because of their ties with IRGC officials.
In contrast, the province's residents usually carry the fuel in large containers and cross the border into Pakistan on foot. The profit they make, though substantial, pales compared to the gains made by the IRGC-affiliated major fuel carriers.
The IRGC opened a number of gas stations in the province, along the Pakistani border, a while ago, and announced that locals living within 20km from the border would receive an allocated amount of fuel to sell for profit, Baluch activist Habibollah Sarbazi told Radio Farda.
After Monday's events, however, the IRGC intends to limit fuel transport and sale to its own forces and affiliates, Sarbazi theorised. Officials, however, have not stated any policy changes.
Crackdown on Baluch citizens
The crackdown on the Saravan protests is partly linked to the majority of the Baluch population being Sunni. The regime routinely accuses Baluch activists of being influenced by "overseas disruptive political groups".
Regime officials on Thursday blamed the unrest on "overseas anti-Islamic republic groups" and accused them of "guiding and leading" the unrest.
The regime took no responsibility for the individuals killed or wounded by the IRGC.
Baluch activists have expressed concerns about the crackdown, saying that protesters in Saravan are normally under pressure and restrictions because of being religious minorities.
The lack of employment opportunities in Sistan and Baluchestan has left its ethnic Baluch population few alternatives to black market trading with fellow Baluch across the border, said HRW.
Because Sistan and Baluchestan has poverty similar to that in the Iranian province of West Azarbaijan and in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, "lack of economic opportunities has led many [Sistan and Baluchestan] residents to engage in unlawful cross-border commerce with Pakistan," the watchdog said.