What is going on between Iran and Pakistan?
In recent months, the Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape has been characterized by escalating tensions and strategic maneuvers, particularly involving the Islamic Republic of Iran, poised on the brink of broader regional conflicts with Israel and the United States. This analysis delves into the intricate web of foreign and domestic elements shaping the current state of affairs following Iran-Pakistan military strikes on each other’s territory, situating the case within a larger geopolitical context, and elucidating the situation’s complexity.
The Prelude to Escalation
The backdrop of the current Iran-Pakistan tension is multifaceted and deeply rooted in a series of incidents that have incrementally heightened pressure on both sides. Iran has faced internal and external pressures following the killing of Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a high-ranking official in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Syria. This incident, combined with an attack on a military post in Rask, Sistan-Baluchistan province, and a significant attack during Qasem Soleimani’s anniversary ceremony in Kerman, has exponentially compounded Iran’s strain to demonstrate a robust response. The central police station of Rask was targeted on December 15, 2023. While state reports cited the loss of 12 security members, Jaisholadl media claimed higher casualties. That same night, Jaisholadl members temporarily gained control over several cities.
The Iranian public’s demand for retaliation, echoed in gatherings and on social networks, has compelled the Iranian government to demonstrate strength. This situation was complicated by the IRGC’s mixed messages, which underscored the situation’s complexity and sensitivity. Supporters of the Islamic Republic of Iran demanded “harsh retaliation,” while critics highlighted the state’s vulnerability, undermining the credibility of security forces. This environment necessitated a swift response, explaining Iran’s series of attacks in three different countries within barely 24 hours, with the final attack being air strikes described by Islamabad as a violation of its airspace, resulting in the death of two children. Iran’s state media claimed Tehran targeted Jaisholadl bases in Pakistan, preempting further planned attacks.
In response, Islamabad conducted air strikes in Sistan-Baluchistan, targeting the Baloch Liberation Front and the Baloch Liberation Army, separatist groups believed to be harbored in Iran. This exchange of strikes led to Pakistan recalling its ambassador from Iran and blocking Tehran’s ambassador to Islamabad from returning.
Contextualization of Complexity
In a broader strategic context, Iran’s recent military actions can be interpreted as a multifaceted message. While ostensibly targeting specific threats, these actions serve as a deterrent signal to regional players, particularly Israel, emphasizing Iran’s readiness to counter perceived threats. Tehran’s actions also convey a clear message to neighboring countries like Iraq, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan, asserting its resolve against threats originating from their territories. The regional dynamics’ complexity is further highlighted by the involvement of various extremist groups opposing Iran and its proxies. The ISIS proclamation following the Kerman attack and Jaisholadl’s actions reveal the multilayered nature of threats facing Iran.
Iran’s strategic posture towards Afghanistan has been crucial in its regional calculus. The Taliban’s re-establishment in Afghanistan has changed regional security dynamics, presenting challenges and opportunities for Iran. Tehran’s approach towards the Taliban involves a complex mix of pragmatism and ideological considerations.
Moreover, the geopolitical landscape has been reshaped by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, providing a base for extremist and terrorist groups. This development has increased volatility along Iran’s eastern borders, leading to significant security concerns in Tehran following the Taliban’s return to power. Iranian authorities fear that separatist groups might align with other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan Province. These groups were responsible for the attacks in Shiraz and Kerman with significant casualties. Additionally, sporadic attacks, such as the April 2022 stabbing at the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, have occurred, further exacerbating security concerns. The attacker, an Uzbek from Afghanistan, illegally entered Iran through Pakistan, underscoring once again the security challenges along Iran’s eastern borders.
The Wider Geopolitical Dimension
The Iran-Pakistan conflict exists within a broader regional and global context, where both nations navigate distinct geopolitical and strategic interests. Their divergent approaches in regions like the Persian Gulf, South Caucasus, and Afghanistan exemplify this. Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban and its central role in China’s ‘One Belt-One Road’ initiative, particularly with the Gwadar port, contrasts with Iran’s strategic interests, including collaboration with India on the Chabahar port. This port serves as a commercial venture and a geostrategic foothold for India, especially in the context of the north-south corridor. The timing of Iran’s attack on Pakistan, aligning with the visit of the Indian Foreign Minister to Iran, is particularly telling. It reflects a complex balancing act in regional diplomacy, where actions convey multiple messages – demonstrating Iran’s military resolve to Pakistan and signaling Tehran’s regional ambitions and alignments with India.
Significantly, both Pakistan and Iran are members of the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes India, Russia, and Central Asia, playing a pivotal role in China’s plans across Asia and the Middle East. Iran’s ‘Look to the East’ foreign policy aligns with powers like Russia and China, often at the expense of broader international engagement. This orientation significantly influences Iran’s strategic decisions and relationships, especially regarding its rivalry with Pakistan and evolving ties with India. The tensions with Pakistan have introduced uncertainty into Tehran’s strategic ‘Look to the East’ plan, which appears as one of the few alternatives in Iran’s strategic considerations.
In the South Caucasus, Iran and Pakistan’s geopolitical interests sharply diverge. Iran’s support for Armenia contrasts with Pakistan’s alignment with Azerbaijan and Turkey. The ‘Three Brothers – 2021’ military drills, a collaboration between Pakistan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, signal Islamabad’s strategic intentions in the region. This divergence is also evident in Iran’s relationship with India, as both countries support Armenia, contrasting with Pakistan’s stance in the South Caucasus, adding another layer to the Iran-Pakistan tension.
The internal political landscapes of Iran and Pakistan significantly influence their foreign policies, especially amid the recent tensions. The political trajectory of leaders like Imran Khan in Pakistan, perceived as being closer to Iran, impacts Tehran-Islamabad relations. The shifting political dynamics in Pakistan, with varying degrees of support for Iran among different political factions and leaders, introduce unpredictability to the bilateral relationship. Additionally, upcoming national elections in both countries influence decision-making processes. In Pakistan, the constitutional crisis that emerged in April 2022 led to the dissolution of the National Assembly. Meanwhile, Iran’s parliamentary election at the end of February is another critical factor, with concerns about low participation potentially impacting the authorities’ legitimacy in Tehran.
Furthermore, protests among the Baluch communities in Iranian and Pakistani Baluchistan have been observed intermittently over the past two years. In Iran, demonstrations erupted in many cities following the death of Jina (Mahsa) Amini in mid-September 2022, soon spreading to Sistan-Baluchistan, becoming a regular movement criticizing Tehran’s domestic and foreign policy. In Pakistan, the Gwadar Ko Haq Do movement and the Long March organized by the Baloch Yakjahti Committee highlighted the Baluch communities’ grievances. The recent tensions have brought the Baluch issue to the forefront of geopolitical considerations, fostering a stronger sense of collectiveness among Baluch communities across borders. The solidarity among Iranian and Pakistani Baluch activists, exemplified by figures like Mehrang Balochand Sammi Deen Baloch, has been notably influential following the attacks. It is important to mention that the Baluch religious elites in Iran distanced themselves from the conflict, as they refrained from dramatically criticizing or blaming the other sides. This response highlights a key difference between the Baluchistan regions: while the nature of the Baluch insurgency in Iran has a confessional aspect, being a Sunni minority in a Shiite state, in Pakistan, a majority Sunni state, the Baluch insurgency is more ethnically characterized, with demands centered on socio-political issues specific to their region.
Iran’s missile strike on Pakistan, which tragically resulted in civilian casualties, marks a significant downturn in relations between the two countries. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with longstanding enmity towards India, interpreted Iran’s aggression as an indication of Tehran’s military capabilities and intentions. Despite challenges, the geographical proximity and shared history between Iran and Pakistan necessitate a certain level of engagement and cooperation. The current tensions highlight significant differences in regional policies and alignments, yet the imperative of territorial contiguity cannot be overstated. Stability and security along their shared 900-kilometer border may ultimately moderate the bilateral relationship, compelling both nations to navigate their differences pragmatically.
The escalating tensions between Iran and Pakistan exemplify the intricate and often volatile nature of regional politics in this area. Rooted in a complex interplay of historical grievances, strategic interests, and geopolitical calculations, the relationship between these two nations oscillates between cooperation and conflict. This multilayered interplay, coupled with evolving geopolitical elements, clarifies why the escalation occurred initially and why it rapidly de-escalated.