Eye on the Middle East | Why did Iran open a fresh front with Pakistan? - Hindustan Times

Eye on the Middle East | Why did Iran open a fresh front with Pakistan?

Jan 19, 2024 09:17 PM IST

Two Islamic Republics strike each other purportedly to wipe out separatist militant groups. This fresh hostility is undergirded by a history of suspicion

On January 17, drones and missiles launched by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) struck two camps of the Sunni Baloch militant group, Jaish al-Adl, deep in Pakistani territory. While the strikes were unprecedented in scale — on Thursday, Pakistan retaliated with strikes in Iranian territory against camps of the Baloch Liberation Front and Baloch Liberation Army; it also swiftly withdrew its ambassador from Tehran, and barred entry to Iran's envoy to Islamabad — it is important to remember that Iranian forces have undertaken cross-border raids into Pakistan several times in the past, against anti-Iranian militant groups.

Miniature soldiers are seen in front of Iranian and Pakistani flags in this illustration taken,(REUTERS) PREMIUM
Miniature soldiers are seen in front of Iranian and Pakistani flags in this illustration taken,(REUTERS)

The airstrikes have re-ignited old faultlines in West Asia, but this fresh bout needs some explaining.

The Baloch problem

Very simply, ethnic Baloch tribes have historically cohabited the territories now known as Sistan-Baloch province in Iran, and Balochistan province in Pakistan. Over the years, their nationalist-separatist politics have spawned several militant groups whose relationship with the Irani and Pakistani States has differed based on strategic and tactical convenience.

In any case, anti-Iran groups operate from Pakistan and anti-Pakistan separatist groups (Balochistan Liberation Front and Balochistan Liberation Army) operate from Iran. There have been sporadic bursts of cooperation between the two States against these groups. Yet, Iran maintains that Pakistan’s larger policy of harbouring terror groups (including anti-Indian groups) has enabled Balochistan-based militants to sustain, expand, and attack Iranian troops in the neighbouring province.

Who are Jaish-ul-Adl?

The threat to Iran became more specific in 2012, with an older Sunni-Baloch militant group re-grouping as the ‘Jaish-ul-Adl’. In October 2014, it carried out a terror attack in Iran, just months after an audacious operation to kidnap five members of the IRGC. In response, the IRGC launched cross-border raids into the Balochistan province, with the IRGC deputy commander stating that if "any neighbouring country fails to fulfil their obligations to protect the border then Iran would have no choice but to act on its own”.

Such Jaish-triggered skirmishes resulting in losses of both Pakistani and Iranian troops in the process and perpetuating a low-intensity conflict focused on Baloch territory, continued over the decade. The most recent was a twin attack against Iranian law enforcement and the IRGC by the Jaish al-Adl in December 2023.

What is different now?

The issue of Baloch militants in the two provinces has formed the primary theatre where Iranian and Pakistani hostility has principally manifested. These recent strikes by both States against each other are aimed at militant camps opposed to either State, in the other’s territory. The current tensions, however, have different causes.

The immediate trigger for Iran’s unprecedented missile strike notwithstanding the historic conflict is not apparent — except for the December attacks. It is more likely that the strikes were part of Iran’s response to the Kerman bombing carried out by militants of the Islamic State Khorsan Province, in early January, who Tehran believes to have crossed into Iran from Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

On January 3, 2024, a commemorative ceremony marking the assassination of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani was held at his grave in eastern Kerman, Iran. The ceremony was interrupted by two bomb explosions, which killed at least 84 people, and injured 284 others.

Hence, by striking the camp of a different group based in Pakistan, Tehran arguably had a dual objective — inducing a cooling effect on other anti-Iran/anti-Shia terror groups in the region including the Jaish-ul-Adl, along with the Afghanistan-based Islamic State Khorasan Province, and increasing costs for the Pakistani State for enabling these groups to operate, whether actively or passively.

Almost counter-intuitively, Pakistan's retaliatory strikes close the crisis loop and serve Islamabad’s need to preserve deterrence by matching Iran on the escalation ladder. Iran's official statement on the 18th after Pakistan's strikes reiterated that it "differentiates between Pakistan's friendly and brotherly government and armed terrorists" (emphasis added). Pakistan's official statement after its strikes in Iran asserted that "Iran is a brotherly country and the people of Pakistan have great respect and affection for the Iranian people". Such language proves the point of both States being more comfortable with simmering hostilities, rather than full-blown conflict.

A quick history lesson

Prior to the Iranian revolution of 1979, Iran-Pakistan ties were largely cordial, with both States even jointly focusing on threats from Left-wing militant groups based in their border provinces. Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi even expressed support to Pakistan in the 1971 war against India. It is the watershed events of 1979, however, that overhauled the bilateral dynamic.

Iran, now ruled by a Shia theocratic regime, immediately found new odds with the new Pakistani regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, who would eventually unleash the biggest wave of Sunni Islamisation (this did not lead to overt hostility between Iran and Pakistan, but it contributed to the simmering resentment that both States bore towards each other, due to persecution of Shias under Zia). Despite Iran and Pakistan overtly expressing desires for a common Islamic future, the personal dislike between Ayatollah Khomeini, the theologian, and Zia, the military dictator was evident.

With the US-Pakistan cooperation reaching its zenith post the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran’s view of Zia being “an American pawn” was cemented. Zia, on his part, was uneasy about Iran potentially sponsoring Shia groups in Pakistan, enthusing them to rebel. As the winds changed in Afghanistan and the Taliban emerged from years of inter-fighting between the US-Pakistan funded mujahideen, Tehran and Islamabad found themselves supporting opposite camps.

Iran, like India, favoured the Northern Alliance, much more than the virulently anti-Shia Taliban. In fact, Iran played a significant role in the formation of the Alliance — an umbrella term for Afghan groups uniting to fight the Taliban in the late 1990s, especially from the Panjshir Valley, under the famed guerilla leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Since then, the Iran-Pakistan bilateral relationship has always been a loud friendship, undergirded with quiet hostility. It is Balochistan, however, where this hostility has historically adopted overt characteristics.

It is the larger political and diplomatic conflict however, supplemented by Iran’s fresh desire for the military approach to countering both Baloch nationalist militancy as well as sectarian terror attacks, which leaves room for further conflict and tests both Iran’s and Pakistan’s pain threshold. The ISKP’s presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and future terror attacks, increases the risk of conflict spillover, even as both Iran and Pakistan lick their wounds from the recent exchange.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a Research Associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. In Eye on the Middle East, Bashir writes about the Middle East/West Asia region, and its larger implications for India. Views expressed are strictly his own.

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