Geopolitics

The Iran-Pakistan Spat
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 01 Feb , 2024

On January 27, 2024, unidentified gunmen killed nine and wounded three Pakistanis in the Sirkan neighbourhood of Saravan city, Sistan-Baluchistan Province of Iran. These Pakistanis were said to be “workers” but it is not known whether they were “working” for a terrorist organization or were on a mission for Pakistan’s ISI. The Sistan-Baluchistan Province is a majority Sunni Muslim, who follow the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam, in the Shia majority Iran. Iran’s state media identified the dead as “foreign nationals” and said no individuals or groups had claimed responsibility for the attack.

Earlier on January 16, 2024, Iran launched a missile strike inside Pakistan against the Jaish al-Adl group (earlier called Jundallah – soldiers of God) in Balochistan Province of Pakistan. Iran had blacklisted the Jaish al-Adl group, raised in 2012, as a terrorist organization. Pakistan accused Iran of violating its territorial sovereignty, recalled its ambassador from Tehran, and carried out air strikes inside Iran on January 18, 2024, at what it called “militant targets”, killing some nine people including three women and four children, which Iran said were all non-Iranians. Following the Pakistani air strike, Iran also summoned Islamabad’s charge d’affaires.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Pakistan on January 29, 2024, on a two-day visit to hold talks with his counterpart, Jalil Abbas Jilani, and Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul HaqKakar to iron out tensions following the strikes on each other by the two countries.Both sides agreed to improve security cooperation, strengthen military cooperation to combat terrorism, establish free-trade economic zones near the common border to bolster bilateral trade, and respect each other’s territorial integrity.

The Iran-Pakistan border has witnessed continuing unrest over the years with ongoing cross-border drug-smuggling gangs and Sunni terrorist groups striking inside Iran, including attacking Iranian border guards. There have been a number of spats earlier between the two neighbours but this is the first time there was a missile strike and a retaliatory air attack. Also, the Baloch population fighting for independence is spread astride the border of both the countries.

Observers say that the air defence systems of both Iran and Pakistan failed to detect the incoming attack, particularly the Chinese air defence system of Pakistan. But perhaps these attacks were never anticipated and for that matter the Houthi in the past could successfully target Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia despite the deployment of American Patriot air defence systems.

The Iranian missile strike in Pakistan was in backdrop of the ongoing US-supported Israeli attack in Gaza and the Houthi attacks on west-affiliated merchant ships in the Red Sea following their demand for stopping the bombings of Gaza having been rejected by the US and Israel. Iran has also undertaken strikes in Syria on what it calls a Mossad establishment, while the US is accusing Iran for backing the Hamas and Houthis, as well as the drone strike on a US base in Jordan on January 29, 2024, killing three soldiers and injuring more than 30 others. Iran also executed four men on January 12, 2024, allegedly linked to Mossad and convicted in 2022 for bombing a factory.

There is a postulation that the Iranian missile strike inside Balochistan and the Pakistani retaliatory air strikes were an arrangement between Pakistan’s ISI and Iran’s SAVAK because both sides are facing the Baloch liberation movement. That is perhaps why not much damage happened beyond a message to Baloch separatists. Pakistan garnered brownie points by showcasing to Washington that it is one nation that can strike Iran. Islamabad can now look for more assistance from the US, as well as more monetary help from international monetary institutions on whom the West has a lien.

On the other hand, Iran has conveyed it will not hesitate to strike Pakistan, which is a US-UK proxy rather than China. Pakistan may be a nuclear power but Iran is far more advanced in missiles and drone technology. Besides, with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) pounding Pakistan incessantly, loggerheads with the Taliban, and with the violence in Balochistan, it can hardly afford conflict with Iran. It is also a fact that Pakistan has been using Sunni Islamist groups in Balochistan to counter more secular Baloch separatists and target Iran.

Iran also knows that the terrorist groups operating from Pakistan, Iraq and Syria are US sponsored. Probably has evidence. Notably, Iran is likely to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Russia in the near future and Iran also has China on its side. Besides Iran knows the US wants to wage war on Iran by other countries like Israel-NATO or non-state actors but not directly get involved – sitting on the fence all along fearing the consequences of a larger Middle East War.

In fact, Pakistani Army Chief General AsimMunir was summoned to Washington, along with the ISI chief, almost after a year when the US realized it cannot attack Iran directly. Subsequently, Iraqi Prime Minister Al Sudaniwas also invited to Washington. Apparently, the administration of the POTUS Joe Biden wants to destabilize Iran by using all its terrorist proxies via Pakistan and Iraq. But this is not going to be easy and will unlikely achieve much by itself. With missile and drone strikes in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan within a space of 24 hours, Tehran has conveyed it is ready for any eventuality.

China has assured Islamabad of its support in defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity. China must protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and execute its extension to Afghanistan and beyond. Besides, Pakistan is China’s gateway to the Arabian Sea and Pakistan’s entire coast is available to China. At the same time, China has strategic and deep economic interests in Iran. It is Chinese diplomacy that engineered restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

It is because of the above that China’s Foreign Minister Sun Weidongrecently visited Pakistan on a mediation mission and China’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying it is maintaining close contacts with Pakistan and Iran to bridge their differences.

As of now, the Iran-Pakistan spat is over though some minor incidents in the border region may continue as hithertofore. The recent spat was unrelated to the war in Gaza and the Red Sea, much as the west wants to portray it. Islamabad knows that Iran also commands a considerable arc of influence over proxy forces and any conflict with Iran would further destabilize Pakistan’s already fragile ground situation. There is speculation that the US may vacate Syria and commence bombing it like Israel is flattening Gaza, to target Iranian assets. That may have repercussions but does not mean an Iran-Pakistan conflict.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army.

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