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From Friendship to Friction: Navigating the Troubled Waters of Pakistan-Iran Relations

Updated: Jul 11

Image Credit: GNN


Introduction

The world’s only country to be born in the name of religion, that is Pakistan derisively labels it to have a ‘brotherly relation’ with a co-religious Islamic nation i.e., the Islamic Republic of Iran. For Pakistan and Iran, historical ties have been characterised by shared challenges and mutual respect. Nevertheless, the recent escalation of tensions between Iran and Pakistan has fuelled concerns about a potential spillover of conflict from the Middle East into South Asia. The events that took place in recent times have highlighted Iran’s role as a volatile geopolitical actor by extending its support to regional proxies like Hamas and the Houthis. On January 16, Iran took immediate steps and carried out several attacks on alleged strongholds of the militant group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Iran. This attack occurred one day after a similar series of Iranian missile strikes in Iraq and Syria, which the Iranian government stated were in response to the Kerman bombings by the Islamic State on January 3, 2024. Pakistan's government condemned the strikes as an "unprovoked violation" of Pakistani airspace and responded two days later with its own air strikes on several targets in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province with the aim of targeting alleged safe havens and sanctuaries of the Balochistan Liberation Army and Balochistan Liberation Front. Both sides claimed there were civilian casualties. In the instantaneous aftermath of Iran’s missile and drone strikes on Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Islamabad demoted its diplomatic relationship with Tehran, recalling its ambassador and not allowing the Iranian ambassador to re-enter Pakistan.

 

Tracing Back The Timeline of Iran-Pakistan Relations

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, both nations were closely linked to  the United States and had, in 1955, became members of the Baghdad Pact, subsequently identified as the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), a military alliance sculpted on NATO. Unlike Pakistan’s persistent fluctuations with its neighbours, India and Afghanistan, relations with Iran have been relatively stable. Iran provided resources and armament support to Pakistan during its 1965 and 1971 wars against India. Following the independence of Bangladesh, the Shah of Iran iconically stated that he would not tolerate the “further disintegration” of Pakistan. When Ayatollah Khomeini’s ultra-conservative Shiite regime seized authority in Iran, Sunni-majority Pakistan was going through its own Islamization under military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, and the two countries found themselves at the extremes of the religious schism. Geopolitically, too, differences began to surface. First, as Iran went from being an ally to an archenemy of the United States almost overnight, the Americans embraced Pakistan closer. Since 1979, it has been a major cause of Iranian distrust of Pakistan, which increased after 9/11 as Islamabad extended wholehearted support to the US “War on Terror." Second, after 1979, Iran’s foreign policy, centred on exporting revolution,caused concern among its Arab neighbours. Each of these oil-rich kingdoms was efficiently controlled by a small group of families, not unlike the Shah’s regime in pre-revolution Iran. Pakistan’s continued strategic ties with these Arab kingdoms added to the turbulent ties with Iran. Third, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces, Pakistan and Iran found themselves on opposite ends in Afghanistan. Iran supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, a Pakistani creation, and came close to entering the conflict following the massacre of Persian-speaking Shia Hazaras and eight Iranian diplomats by Sunni Militia in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998.

 

The Baloch Connection

While the magnitude of the latest hostilities was unprecedented, tensions and border skirmishes are familiar occurrences. The Iran and Pakistan border, spanning across Iran's Sistan and Balochistan and Pakistan's Balochistan, faces significant challenges due to its high porosity, making it susceptible to extensive smuggling and terrorist activities, primarily orchestrated by Baloch insurgents who have been fighting for the rights of the ethnic Baluch population in both countries, although there are distinct differences in these insurgencies.


The insurgency on the Iranian side of the border has Sunni Islamist roots and is led by the Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated group, Jaish al-Adl (JuA), which was established in 2012. Both JuA and its predecessor, the now-defunct Jundullah, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, have perpetrated a series of attacks on Iran. A terrorist attack on January 3 in Kerman, which killed over 80 people and was attributed to ISIS, crossed a red line for Tehran, triggering the strikes against Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan. In Pakistan, the Baloch insurgency has more secular nationalist roots, can be traced to the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, and calls for an autonomous or independent Baloch state. The most recent insurgency erupted following the US invasion of Afghanistan when several Pakistan-backed militant groups in neighbouring Afghanistan relocated to Balochistan, challenging traditional power structures in the resource-rich but sparsely populated and impoverished province. Despite maintaining a generally positive relationship, both countries have consistently accused each other of harbouring terrorists and falling short in ensuring security on their respective sides of the border, which has long been a major source of concern for officials in both Tehran and Islamabad. These apprehensions led to the creation of the Iran-Pakistan Border Barrier, with construction commencing on the Iranian fortifications in 2011 and on the Pakistani fortifications in 2019.

 

Current Turmoil

On January 15, 2024, Iran launched a barrage of 15 missiles directed at Iraq and Syria. Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, suffered the most from the attacks, with all but four missiles hitting the city. While the others targeted Syria’s Idlib governorate, primarily targeting areas under the dominion of the Syrian opposition. The Iranian government claimed it intended to attack Israel in Iraq by destroying the regional headquarters of Mossad. However, both the Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdish government denied this assertion and denounced the attack. The Iranian missile attack occurred almost two weeks after the Kerman bombings, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.


Following the execution of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran targeted Koh-e-Sabz, a locality in the Panjgur District of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, which resulted in the deaths of two Pakistani children. Pakistan quickly condemned the attack and responded diplomatically by expelling the Iranian ambassador from Islamabad recalling its own ambassador from Tehran and issuing a stern warning to Iran regarding potential retaliatory actions. Iran justified its actions by claiming that it had aimed at Jaish al-Adl, a Baloch insurgent group involved in the Sistan and Balochistan insurgencies. This group had previously claimed responsibility for the 2019 Khash-Zahedan suicide bombings that targeted the IRGC. On January 18, in a tit-for-tat move, Pakistan launched a retaliatory strike, codenamed ''Operation Marg Bar Sarmachar", carried out by the Pakistan Air Force against seven targets of the Balochistan Liberation Army and Balochistan Liberation Front terrorists in the Saravan city of Sistan and Balochistan province of Iran. Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi stated that nine foreign nationals, comprising three women, four children, and two men, were killed. Pakistani strikes became the first known instance of an attack on Iranian soil since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

 

Image Credits- Bloomberg


Future Prospects

While both parties are reluctant to engage in a broader confrontation, there is an underlying danger of unintentional escalation, particularly as both sides seek to polish their national security credentials. Iran is keen to show that it is protecting its sovereignty, particularly in a region where the regime’s legitimacy has long been under threat. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s reprisal for Iran’s attacks has helped to improve the image of its military, which was tarnished when popular leader Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister in 2022 after losing popularity amongst the military and intelligence services. Alongside this, Iran's rivalry with Saudi Arabia, a key ally of Pakistan, adds another layer of complexity. The Sunni-Shia division in the Muslim world often affects Pakistan's delicate balancing of its relationships with Iran and its alliances with Gulf Arab states. Another crucial factor that shapes Iran-Pakistan relations is the situation in Afghanistan, which impacts both countries with concerns about the spillover of militancy and the refugee crisis. The emergence of the Taliban has brought forth new challenges and opportunities for Iran and Pakistan, each striving to safeguard their interests in the war-torn country. However, the reciprocal strikes have further raised the probability of a wider regional conflict, as both countries have connections and conflicts of strategic importance with other Middle East actors. Iran heads the so-called "axis of resistance," an informal coalition of anti-Israeli and anti-Western groups that includes Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and various Shia militias. Iran and its allies have been engaged in multiple conflicts and confrontations with Israel and its allies, such as the US, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran also opposes any normalisation of ties with Israel. Pakistan, on the other hand, has a complicated and sensitive relationship with the Middle East. Pakistan is a close associate of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which provide economic and military assistance to Islamabad. Pakistan also has an extensive expatriate workforce in the Gulf countries, which provides remittances back home. However, Pakistan has also tried to maintain cordial relations with Iran. Pakistan has also maintained a strong alliance with China, which is a major investor and creditor in the country. China has also been broadening its reach and impact in the Middle East, especially in Iran, where it has signed a 25-year collaboration pact that covers trade, energy, infrastructure, and security. Besides, China has been an advocate of the Palestinian cause and has opposed US and Israeli policies in the region. Therefore, Pakistan faces the dilemma of balancing its interests and loyalties in the Middle East while avoiding being dragged into a conflict that could jeopardise its stability and security.


Conclusion

Presently, both Iran and Pakistan have their hands full with regional conflicts. Both nations would refrain from further escalation since their economic and geopolitical resources are already strained. Hence, an all-out war seems like an unlikely scenario; the potential for further skirmishes and escalations casts a dark shadow over the region. However, this event does bring another unwanted active theatre of conflict to the forefront of an international community that is already dealing with multiple flashpoints. Moving forward necessitates delegation, delicate diplomacy, trust-building initiatives, and a willingness to address the underlying causes of conflict.

 

By: Simran Jangra 

Simran Jangra is a first-year student majoring in Chemistry at Hindu College, University of Delhi. She has a keen interest in social and political issues and loves to delve into the complexities of global politics, exploring its impact on International landscapes.

 

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