Pak-Iran Relations and the Problem of Cross-border Militancy

Apr 30, 2019

Pakistan and Iran share common history, faith, and culture. Their bilateral relations have seen ups and downs over decades. Their 900-km long common border often serves as a point of attraction for criminal and militant activities. The border area has been ripe for human trafficking and smuggling of petroleum products. Illegal immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan mostly take the Iranian route to reach Europe via Turkey. On the other hand, Iranian petro products regularly make their way into Pakistan through smuggling. Pakistan’s Balochistan province is a huge market for smuggled Iranian oil. However, what creates tension between the two countries is the cross border movement of militants. Both sides have accused each other of supporting or sheltering militants against each other. Iran complains that Pakistan is not doing enough to contain anti-Iran militants that allegedly operate from Pakistani soil. Pakistan, on its part, blames Iran for the same.

Just recently, Pakistan lodged a strongly-worded protest with Iran over the killing of 14 Pakistani security personnel in the Ormara area of Balochistan. Pakistan’s Foreign Office conveyed a letter of protest to the Iranian Embassy in Islamabad, and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi called his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif to protest. On 20 Apr 2019, Qureshi said Pakistan had credible information that the training and logistics camps of the Baloch terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the attack were based on the Iranian side of the border. Pakistan’s allegations came just days before Prime Minister Imran Khan was due to visit Iran.

In 1998, the killing of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif triggered a war-like situation as Iran mobilized its army on the Afghan border. A public rally in Iran accused Pakistan of being responsible for the murder of their diplomats. Pakistan denied the allegation.

The Pak-Iran relations had a warm start as Iran was the first country to recognize Pakistan’s sovereign status after the latter’s independence. During the 1970s when Pakistan was facing a Baloch sub-nationalist insurgency, Iran came forward to help Pakistan put down the insurgency for their mutual benefit. Iran’s Sistan-e-Balochistan province is home to Sunni Baloch who resent Tehran’s discrimination against its Sunni citizens particularly the ethnic Baloch minority. Iran also supported Pakistan during its wars with India in 1965 and 1971.

However, the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 drastically changed the political and security dynamics in the region. In Iran, the pro-West Shah was deposed and replaced by Khomeini, a religious hardliner who adopted an aggressive foreign policy towards the United States. To make matters worse, a group of Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage on 4 Nov 1979. It became the longest hostage crisis in recorded history as it lasted for 444 days. The crisis formally laid the foundation of enmity between the US and Iran.

On the other hand, Pakistan came closer to the United States during the same time. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the US formed a trio to push the Red Army back from Afghanistan. The Zia regime whipped up the fears of communist expansion, driving the Saudis and Americans to commit funds for the Afghan jihad. However, Pakistan’s policy of welcoming the US presence in the region during the 1980s did not sit well with Tehran. Another factor that upset the Pak-Iran relations was the exclusion of Shia militias from the Afghan jihad. Saudi Arabia which was a major stakeholder in the Afghan war favored the exclusion of Shia militias from training and funding. They were left to be taken care of by Iran.

During the 1990s, Pakistan and Iran again found themselves on opposing sides in Afghanistan. Pakistan backed the Taliban who in turn aroused Iran’s suspicion and discomfort by clamping down on Shiite populations in Afghanistan. Iran extended support to the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance. In 1998, the killing of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif triggered a war situation as Iran mobilized its army on the Afghan border. A public rally in Iran accused Pakistan of being responsible for the murder of their diplomats. Pakistan denied the allegation. It was reported that the diplomats were killed by some unruly Taliban elements following the takeover of Mazar.

In recent years, Iran has been inching closer to India. Their bilateral agreements in trade, energy, and infrastructure etc have led to a growing Indian presence on the Iranian soil. The strengthening of ties between Iran and India has caused considerable security concerns in Islamabad. Official quarters in Pakistan see the Indian expansion in its west as an attempt at Pakistan’s strategic encirclement by India. India’s deep engagement in the post-Taliban Afghanistan has frequently been blamed for the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan. Pakistan has been accusing India of fomenting unrest in Balochistan through its consulates in Afghanistan.

Now Pakistan is worried that India would do the same from Iran too. This fear magnified after Pakistani authorities nabbed an Indian national, Kulbushan Jhadav, from Balochistan province in Mar 2016. Jhadav was later identified as a serving officer of Indian navy who worked for the Indian intelligence agency RAW. In a confessional statement to Pakistani authorities, Jhadav said he planned and carried out subversive activities in Balochistan. Following his arrest, Balochistan’s Home Minister Sarfaraz Bugti claimed Jhadav provided finances to the terrorists in Balochistan and Karachi. According to Jhadav’s confession, he was resided in and operated from the Iranian port city of Chahbahar, and maintained relations with the Iranian intelligence. India’s investment in the construction of Chahbahar port has stressed the Pak-Iran relations.

However, no country has factored in the Pak-Iran relations as much as Saudi Arabia. In Dec 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of what it called the Islamic military alliance against terrorism. Officially known as ‘Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition’, the Saudi-led security alliance comprised 41 member states. The alliance is thought to be the brainchild of the ambitious Saudi prince, Mohammad bin Salman. Iran was excluded from the group. The alliance claims it seeks global peace and elimination of terrorism. Iran, however, believes the coalition has been put together with Iran in mind. Later in Jan 2017, Saudi Arabia appointed Raheel Sharif, a former Pakistan military chief, to head the coalition. Though the coalition has largely been insignificant since its inception, nevertheless it has served to widen the trust deficit between Pakistan and Iran.

A problematic border region

The most prominent factor which triggers tension between Pakistan and Iran is the cross-border movement of militants. Iran alleges that terrorist groups such as Jandullah and Jaish-ul-Adle carry out terrorist attacks in its border regions from their safe havens on Pakistani side. Jandullah and Jaish-ul-Adle (both believed to be Al-Qaeda affiliates) target personnel of the Iranian border security, often triggering a standoff between Pakistani and Iranian forces. Jandullah and Jaish-ul-Adle are Sunni extremist groups that oppose Tehran’s repression of its Sunni citizens in regions like Sistan-Balochistan. Iran’s stance on the border issue, at times, been marked by frustration and warning towards Pakistan. In 2014, anti-Iran militants kidnapped five Iranian border guards and allegedly transported them to Pakistan. Following the incident, Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani accused Pakistan of inaction against the militias. Pakistan refuted the allegation.

Similarly, General Soleimani, a commander of Iran’s revolutionary guards, has criticized Pakistan for not taking sufficient actions against the anti-Iran militants that allegedly operate from the Pakistani side. Soleimani, who is famed in Iran for his efforts against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, once threatened that Iran would take direct action against the terrorists if Pakistan was unable to do so. The General went as far as to accuse Pakistan of playing Saudi’s proxy against Iran. Such war of words between Pakistan and Iran, mostly triggered by militancy on the borders, increasingly push the two countries apart.

Pakistan, on its part, accuses Iran of allowing India to use the Iranian soil instigating separatist insurgency in the troubled Balochistan province. Several Baloch separatist groups have been fighting the law enforcement agencies in the province since the early 2000s. Pakistan’s Baloch problem worsened after a noted Baloch tribal head and politician, Akbar Khan Bugti, was killed in a military operation in Aug 2006. Security operations have largely suppressed the insurgency, but it has not died down completely. And Pakistan blames the Indian presence in Afghanistan and Iran for the problem.

In Aug 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a reference to Balochistan during his Independence Day speech in New Delhi. Later, a suspected Indian intelligence operative was caught in Balochistan who confessed to having been involved in promoting insurgency in Pakistan. These factors cemented Pakistan’s apprehensions about Indian presence in Iran. Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, took up the matter of Kalbushan Jhadav with the Iranian president during the latter’s official visit to Pakistan in Mar 2016. The arrest of the Jhadav was an embarrassment for Iran as Pakistan had always maintained that Baloch militants linked to BLA and BRA were sheltered in Iran. Pakistan maintains that Iranian authorities are aware of the movement and whereabouts of these militant groups.

Earlier this month, Pakistan experienced one of the deadliest attacks from Baloch separatists in Balochistan. On 18 Apr 2019, suspected Baloch militants intercepted several passenger buses on a highway near the coastal area of Ormara. The militants checked the passengers’ IDs and offloaded 14 passengers. Those taken out were lined up and executed in cold blood. The victims were personnel of Pakistan’s armed forces. An alliance of Baloch militant groups called BRAS claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack. The incident drew a strong reaction from Islamabad which blamed Iran-based militants for the massacre. Pakistan claimed the terrorists had fled to Iran after carrying out the deadly attack. Pakistan’s Foreign Office sent a protest letter to the Iranian Embassy in Islamabad, and the foreign minister called his Iranian counterpart to lodge a protest. Few days after the Ormara attack, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Iran with the cross-border terrorism on the top of his agenda. In Tehran, PM Khan and Iranian President Rouhani agreed to form a joint “Quick Reaction Force” to tackle the shared problem of cross-border militancy and terrorism. Commenting on the proposed force, the Iranian president, however, said:

Both sides would benefit from it. I don’t expect it to be a separate force per se but rather a mechanism for sharing intelligence on what is happening in the area… Iranian border forces won’t tolerate a Pakistani command and Pakistani forces won’t tolerate an Iranian command. It will be a consultative body, I believe”.

Jandullah:

Jundallah is a Sunni militant group that fights against the Iranian regime for suppressing Iran’s Sunni Baloch in the Sistan-Balochistan region. It was founded by an Iranian Baloch Abdul Malik Regi in 2003. It has roughly about 1000 men with explosives and small weapons in the Sistan-Balochistan that border Pakistani Balochistan. Its power is derived primarily from the local Iranian Baloch people. Its declared objective is autonomy for the Baloch in Iran. Jandullah militants mostly target Iranian revolutionary guards through guerilla warfare. It has carried out suicide attacks, assassinations, bombings, and targeted killings in Iran. In 2014, Jandullah declared allegiance with TTP and Daesh. Iran claims the group is funded by the US and UK to instigate instability in Iran.

Jandullah began actively attacking Iranian targets in 2005. In one of their initial attacks, the Jandullah militants ambushed the motorcade of Iranian President Ahmedinejad in 2005. The president remained safe. On 16 Mar 2006, the group blocked a road near Tasooki in Sistan-Balochistan and killed 22 civilians. Likewise, on August 19 2007, Jandullah militants abducted 21 Iranian truck drivers near Chahbahar and took them to Pakistan. The Pakistani forces responded by arresting the kidnappers and freeing the drivers after a fierce gunbattle. On June 13 2008, the militants struck again. They abducted 16 Iranian police officers from Sarawan district of Sistan-Baluchistan and transported them to Pakistan where some of them were killed.

Iran executed Jandullah’s founder Abdul Malik Regi in June 2010. A month later, the group carried out two suicide attacks, targeting members of revolutionary guards at a mosque in Zahedan. The group claimed the attacks were a revenge for Regi’s death. Regi’s execution dealt a blow to the militant group. It split into two factions namely Jaish-ul-Adle and Harkatul Ansar Iran. Both splinter outfits drew their manpower from Jandullah.

Jaish-al-Adl  

Jaishul Adl is the most active Sunni terrorist group operating in Sistan-Balochistan. It killed 14 Iranian border guards near the Pak-Iran border in Oct 2013. Five months later, its militants abducted five Iranian soldiers and took them to Pakistan. Later, four of the soldiers were released while the fifth one was killed. On 26 Apr 2017, Jaishul Adl ambushed a group of Iranian border patrol near Pakistani border, killing nine and injuring several others. In Oct 2018, the group took 12 Iranian security personnel from Zahedan and shifted them to the Pakistani side. Pakistan helped recover some of the kidnapped Iranians. One of their deadliest attacks came in Feb 2019 when a Jaish suicide bomber hit a bus carrying the members of Iran’s revolutionary guards. At least 27 people were killed and 13 wounded.

India in Iran

The problem of cross-border terrorism has afflicted bilateral ties between Pakistan and Iran for years. India’s growing presence in Iran has further compounded Pakistan’s security worries. India has invested heavily in the construction of the Chahbahar port that many view as counterweight to the Gwadar port. In 2003, Iran and India signed a defense pact that allow Iran significant reach to the Indian defense technologies, joint military exercises, up-gradation of defense systems, and establishment of joint counter-terrorism groups. The arrest in Mar 2016 of a suspected Indian spy in Balochistan cemented Pakistan’s fears about its Baloch insurgents getting support from India in Iran.

Traditionally, Pakistan has mostly been concerned about the security of its eastern borders with India. But, now with India effectively present in its west in Afghanistan and Iran, Pakistan fears India is attempting to strategically encircle Pakistan. Pakistani defense circles believe if Pakistan deploys its troops on both eastern and western borders it would become weaker militarily which would ultimately benefit India. Therefore, peaceful western borders with Iran and Afghanistan are indispensable for Pakistan’s security.

On the other hand, Iran is also skeptical about Pakistan’s close relations with Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s financial and ideological influence is a cause of concern for Iran. The country has indispensable financial stakes in the Kingdom because the bulk of Pakistan’s foreign remittances come from Saudi Arabia. Lately, the issue of gas pipeline has also stressed the ties between Pakistan and Iran. Iran believes Pakistan halted its part of the project under Saudi pressure rather than international sanctions against Iran. Pakistan has arranged an alternative to the Iranian gas by importing gas from Qatar.

Squeezed between two regional rivals

Pakistan frequently finds itself caught in a difficult situation in the Saudi-Iran tussle. It has to balance its relations with the two regional rivals. Pakistan is a Sunni-majority state with a considerable Shiite population. Over decades especially since the Iranian revolution, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have made attempts to export their respective religious ideologies to Pakistan. Both have stakes and influence in the country. Therefore, Pakistan has exercised caution in its relations towards the two rivals. Notwithstanding the balancing efforts, Pakistan often ends up upsetting one or the other on some count.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia requested Pakistan to provide troops for its war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Pakistani government put the matter before the parliament which debated the question for about four days and finally passed a resolution in favor of Pakistan’s neutrality on Yemen war. According to analysts, the Kingdom was considerably annoyed with Pakistan’s neutral stance. Pakistan feared becoming a party in the war between Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels backed by Iran could invite sectarian tensions in the country because there are an estimated 35 million Shiites in Pakistan.

However, three years later Pakistan sent over 1000 troops to Saudi Arabia. In Feb 2018, Pakistan army announced the sending of the troops. The army said the troops were on a training and advisory mission. It also clarified that no Pakistani troop would be deployed outside the kingdom. Many politicians in Pakistan were shocked by the decision because it clearly contradicted the parliament’s resolution of maintaining neutrality on Saudi-Yemen conflict. Some security analysts speculate that the real behind the sending of the troops was to help protect the royal family which was probably feeling vulnerable after Prince Mohammad bin Salman launched a crackdown against some very powerful members of the royal family on charges of corruption.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been competing for hegemony in the region. Both want self-serving governments in their neighbors and indulge in intense proxy wars. And Pakistan gets caught in the middle. Deadly proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention the radicalization on sectarian grounds in regional countries including Pakistan.

Counter-militancy efforts

It is virtually impossible for Pakistan and Iran to completely man their 900-kilometer long porous border which is the reason the militants operating in the border regions always manage to cross over to either side. The cross-border movement of the militants has often brought the security forces of the two countries eye ball to eye ball. Though the two sides have often demonstrated their seriousness in tackling the militancy issue and addressing the other’s grievances, yet the mutual trust deficit continues. In 2008, Pakistan handed over Hamid Regi, brother of Malik Regi and a key commander of Jandullah, to Iran. The move was seen as a remarkable instance of bilateral cooperation against cross-border terrorism. In 2018, both countries signed an MoU to contain the illegal movement of people and goods on the borders.

Earlier this month, Pakistan announced the formation of a new security command structure in the Turbat city of Balochistan with the purpose of boosting the effectiveness of troop deployment at the Pak-Iran border. The two sides have already agreed on setting up border centers under which the patrolling on both sides would be synchronized. A proposal for aerial surveillance of the borders is also on the cards in order to prevent cross border movement of militants and criminals.

Need for joint efforts

The border issue has often stressed the ties between the two neighbors. There is a chronic trust deficit between Pakistan and Iran on the question of cross-border militancy. The two countries should start by building mutual trust. They should adopt a holistic strategy for bilateral cooperation regarding their border issues. The Iranian forces have more than once crossed over into Pakistani territory allegedly in pursuit of militants. Such a reckless approach is bound to invite resentment from Islamabad. Therefore, the sovereignty and territorial limits of both countries must be honored by both sides.

Most importantly, however, both Pakistan and Iran must not allow militant groups, criminals, and other non-state actors to use their territory against the other. Denying space to militants of all shades is in the interest of both Pakistan and Iran in the long run. Using or supporting extremist militant groups for short-term strategic purposes is always fraught with great security risks. Therefore, both countries should resist the temptation of supporting or sheltering proxies against each other. Pakistan is in a tougher position viz-a-viz Iran because it has to do a delicate balancing in its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. The latter is one of the largest markets for Pakistani labor, and a top source of foreign remittance. Besides, the kingdom has often bailed Pakistan out of financial crises through cash payments and deferred payments on oil supplies to Pakistan. Ideologically too, Pakistan is more tilted towards Saudi Arabia.

Currently, Pakistan is facing an economic crisis. The country is negotiating a bailout package with the IMF. With its economy tottering, Pakistan tends to look more towards Saudi Arabia for financial help. However, despite these challenges, Pakistan must tread with caution and avoid over engagement with the kingdom as far as possible. The parliament’s 2015 decision of neutrality on Saudi-Yemen war was a hard but prudent one. Neutrality should be maintained for greater security interests. Pakistan is already facing violent extremism. It cannot afford to become a fuel in the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan has already suffered too much from the Iran-Saudi tug of war.

Likewise, Iran must also address Pakistan’s grievances regarding cross-border terrorism. No doubt, as a sovereign nation Iran has every right to maintain relations with other countries including India. But the fact that an Indian intelligence operative confesses to having used the Iranian soil against Pakistan raises many questions about India’s presence in Iran. It is surely unlikely that Iran is oblivious of India’s intentions or activities on its soil. Pakistan has long maintained that the insurgency in its Balochistan province is fuelled by India. Therefore, Iran must address Pakistan’s genuine security concerns regarding India. The two countries need more diplomatic engagement to discuss bilateral issues and common interests. Lastly, Pakistan and Iran are unlikely to establish good relations as long as the Afghan issue lingers on. These two countries should support peace efforts for an inclusive Afghanistan where no segment of Afghan society is left out of the mainstream.


 

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