Iran-Pakistan Airstrikes & Implications on Bilateral Relations

The clashes shared between Pakistan and Iran in January put the world on high alert. All together, almost a dozen people were killed — a lot of them children. While both Tehran and Islamabad appear to have targeted anti-state separatist camps operating in each other’s territories, the exchange of blows is alarming. With the Israel-Palestine conflict raging on, South Asia appears to now be bearing the brunt of the Middle East’s fallout. Anti-state separatist armed groups and other militant outfits operating on precepts of nationalism and Islamic ideology have enlarged their mobilization in the large region of South, West and Central Asia. Geopolitical barriers appear to be preventing stable relations between Iran and Pakistan, largely due to a shared attempt for regional competitiveness as well as hegemonic demands from global powers.

The primary factor behind the trading of airstrikes is a rising trend of militant insurgency in the region of Balochistan, a deeply historical area that has long been fought over, from the ancient Greeks and Macedonians to the soldiers of the British empire prior to Pakistan’s independence in 1947. Balochistan largely overlaps into both Pakistan and Iran; both predominantly Islamic nations. The area is Pakistan’s largest, but most sparsely populated and poorest province, an area that is the cornerstone of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China’s enormous $60 billion infrastructure project under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Baloch people also reside in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, an area that borders Pakistan. Since the partition of 1947, Balochs have sought to distinguish themselves as an independent people, separate from Pakistan and Iran entirely. This has resulted in a great deal of violence, with contemporary attacks carried out against Pakistani and Iranian security forces since the early 2000s. In recent years, in an effort to dilute Pakistan’s power over Balochistan, separatist militants with the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and other outfits have launched violent attacks on Chinese interests, security personnel and state authorities. The assaults have almost become expected, occurring on nearly a daily basis; bombings, suicide attacks, and large-scale ambushes in public areas have caused a problem for both Iranian and Pakistan forces alike

Primarily accredited to the rise of transnational terrorism in the region is the Baloch people’s grievances against both Pakistan and Iran. The Baloch people claim to be ethnically excluded from significant economic development. They claim to have little access to the abundance of valuable minerals and oil reserves on their land, with labor instead outsourced to China under CPEC. In fact, Jaish al-Adl and Baloch militants fight for the same objectives in shared Iran-Pakistan geography. The inequality in resource distribution on the basis of ethnic discrimination has forced the Balochistan-dominated peoples to struggle militarily to create territory independent of the larger Balochistan area. As a result, BLA and Jaish al-Adl operatives have lashed out with a multitude of cross-border attacks. Iran has previously accused Pakistan of not doing enough to thwart terrorism in the region, in turn greatly intensifying tensions between the two nations. Iran’s by-proxy involvement in the Middle East via both the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon seems to have Tehran on edge and willing to prove its regional authority with great force. Despite Iran and Pakistan being both Muslim nations, differences in Islamic ideology have further stoked political tautness. Iran’s sudden use of ballistic missiles to target terrorist group Jaish al-Adl on Pakistani soil enraged Islamabad, who labeled the assault an egregious violation of international law. Consequently, Pakistan retaliated, launching a missile into a hideout of the BLA over the Iranian border, purportedly killing a handful of non-Iranian persons.

While at the surface level Pakistan and Iran appear to be conciliatory in the rebuilding of diplomatic ties, geopolitical considerations also must be reflected upon. Pakistan and Iran share Islamic identity and have maintained bilateral relations for years. The recent exhibition of military might will surely impact the stability of future political ties between Tehran and Islamabad. Anti-state armed groups have long sought safe havens in each other’s territories and have fought against Iranian and Pakistan state leadership for decades, forging geopolitical walls between Tehran and Islamabad. Possibly, Pakistan and Iran may engage in a proxy war, whereby there is a degree of support for Jaish al-Adl and Baloch separatist groups on each side, respectively, in order to get the upper hand. There is a possibility that violence will continue in the likely event that border attacks will increase on each other’s soil.

Furthermore, Iran and Pakistan have different alliances and interests with regional and extra-regional powers, which can promote the interplay scenario between both countries, in turn fostering further tension in the region. Iran has been critical of Pakistan’s handling of its neighbor, Afghanistan, since the Taliban’s renewal of power. In this context, both regional and external powers will be looking for their own interests. India supports Iran’s air strikes inside Pakistan under the guise of “self-defense;” previously accusing Pakistan of supporting and dispatching terror outfits to Indian-administered Kashmir. On the other hand, the United States condemned Iranian airstrikes against Pakistan due to Iran’s active proxy wars in the Middle East against American allies, particularly Israel. This situation might give birth to more proxy wars both in South Asia and the Middle East where state and non-state actors will take the opportunity to ensure their regional interests through promoting a proxy agenda. Subsequently, such differences in regional alignments have Pakistan and Iran at a fork in the road. While Tehran is keen to flex its muscles to exact regional influence, Pakistan is in no state to engage in a broader conflict. Islamabad’s economy is tanking, and political polarization is at an all-time high. In other words, the country is in a state of confusion. Widespread suspicion of election rigging at the hands of Islamabad’s all-powerful military in the 8th February selection of a new leader leaves the nation in a state of uncertainty, in turn fomenting further tension and dissidence. As a result, Iran will tailor its diplomacy towards Pakistan’s new administration in a manner it sees accordingly. Tehran’s involvement in the Middle East conflict means it has gone too far to turn back – it must not be forgotten that Iran has readied itself to do what is required for the protection of its own sovereignty. Consequently, it is likely that the Tehran-Islamabad relationship will teeter from good to bad, stable to unstable as both countries navigate a period of great tumult. In any case, it seems that Iran and Pakistan will suffer from increased continued border attacks, opening the door for further military insurgencies and violent groups to infiltrate in Iran & Pakistan’s Balochistan. Baloch separatists might carry out more regular military operations against both Pakistani security forces and China’s CPEC personnel in the area. If not tackled in due course, dissension on both sides of the equation will stoke further agitation. Henceforth, Pakistan will endure political and economic difficulties in the post-election era. This may ensnare tension with neighboring India and Afghanistan, impacting bilateral ties in the region.

[Representational image, by Hossein Velayati, via Wikimedia Commons]

Joshua Bowes is a Research Associate with The Millennium Project’s South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) in Washington, D.C.

Masom Jan Masomy is a Research Fellow with SAFN’s Afghanistan Node. Masom is also an Assistant Professor at the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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