The Complex Dynamics of Iran-Pakistan Border Conflict

The Complex Dynamics of Iran-Pakistan Border Conflict

Iran and Pakistan share a volatile border that stretches about 900 kilometers. They have long fought Baluchi terrorists in the region.

Prof. Avinash KolheUpdated: Monday, January 22, 2024, 06:42 PM IST
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Modern international politics is so difficult to predict! Nobody would have thought that Iran will bomb terrorist camps in Pakistan’s Baluchistan and Pakistan will offer a return gift! But then that is the harsh reality of 21st century global politics. Remember how suddenly the US pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021?

Pakistan carried out a highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes against Baloch separatists in Saravan, a city in Iran’s southeast about 70 miles from the Iran-Pakistan border. Thursday’s strikes were in retaliation of a surprise attack in Pakistani territory against the anti-Iranian Baloch militant group Jaish al-Adl [Army of Justice]

Iran and Pakistan share a volatile border that stretches about 900 kilometers. They have long fought Baluchi terrorists in the region. It must be noted that the Baluchi people reside at the convergence of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Historically they have shown a strong desire for independence, harboring anger for being governed by both Islamabad and Iran. Consequently, terrorism has flourished in the porous border regions for decades.

Another important feature of Baluchistan is that it is rich in natural resources. The armed Baloch separatists argue that their communities have not received any benefits, though it is Pakistan’s largest province in terms of land area. Of late, the militants in Baluchistan has become quite active and have been carrying their attacks with impunity. Both Iran and Pakistan has been trying to manage Baloch separatism for decades. The recent blow-for-blow strikes are an escalation of past tactics, which occasionally saw cross-border operations-but never strikes on this scale. But then this is not the first time that Iran and Pakistan have fought over Baloch separatist groups. The Baloch people are a Sunni Muslim ethnic minority living in a region called Baluchistan. It is a sparsely populated, largely arid land lacking in development. It is quite poor region. Both Iran and Pakistan are infamous for severely oppressing their Baloch populations which in turn fuels protests and separatism.

This time Iran is playing an altogether different game. It has simultaneously attacked Syria, Iraq and Pakistan. It conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria late Monday in response to a suicide bombing that killed more than 90 people on 3rd January. Sunni militant group the ‘Islamic State’ promptly claimed responsibility for these attacks. One can only guess as to why Tehran opened three fronts in the Islamic world. Tuesday’s Iranian strike on Pakistan was one of the toughest cross-border strike on the terrorist group Jaish al-Adl in Pakistan which is allegedly has links with the Islamic State. Many of Jaish’s members were previously with now defunct terror group known as Jundallah that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Both Iran and Pakistan trade charges of supporting terror groups. Baloch separatist groups such as the Baluchistan Liberation Army and the Baluch Liberation Front have attacked law enforcement, government personnel and government buildings in Baluchistan. Islamabad has accused Tehran of giving them a safe haven across the border in Iran where they receive funds and training.

Let us recall that the relations between Iran and Pakistan have never been favourable with both blaming the each other for using their minorities as proxies for their own political games. Despite this, both have historically managed to maintain routine diplomatic, trade and military activities between them.

The current tense situation is not good for the Middle East. As it is the world leaders have to cope with Israel-Hamas altercation which has already made the Middle East quite tense. Add to this the current PaK-Iran stand-off. The rare military actions between the Islamic countries threatened to escalate into a border conflict in a region already on edge over Israel’s more than three month war in the Gaza Strip. No wonder the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep concerns over the exchange of military strikes and urged Iran and Pakistan to exercise maximum restraint to avoid a further escalation of tensions.

For quite some time Iran has suspected that anti-Iran terrorists group have found a safe haven in Baluchistan, a southwest province of Pakistan. This is not regular anti-Iran attacks inspired and sponsored by the West. This is a typical sectarian fight between Shias and Sunnis, which is essentially intra-Islam. Iran, Shia controlled state alleged that the Sunni militant group Jaish-al-Adl has links with the Islamic State. As was expected Pakistan reacted within 24 hours of Iranian strike. It was a simple tit-for-tat policy.

Tehran has been waiting to avenge the death of Qassem Soleimani, principal architect of Iran’s network of proxy paramilitaries in the Arab world, who was killed by a US drone in 2020. Tehran has been gunning for the Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim militant group. Scholars argue that we need to look at the larger picture to understand the Iranian motives behind the attacks on Pakistan. In addition to Hamas, an Iranian ally, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen too are involved in wars. It is also predicted that Iran will go out of its ways to deescalate the tension on Iran-Pak border as it can ill-afford another front and hostilities with Pakistan, a nuclear-armed neighbour. It is understood that the Iranian calculus is quite complex. It seems to have overplayed its hand and underestimated Pakistan’s reactions.  And let us not forget that both countries will face general soon, Pakistan next month whereas Iran in six week time. This is why both are not keen to deescalate the tension. Sooner than later, situation is likely to cool off.

(Professor Avinash Kolhe is a Mumbai based retired associate professor in political science. He is a visiting Associate Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi)

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