Souring Iran-Pakistan relations

July 31, 2017
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


The decline in Iran-Pakistan relations is continuing, the major reason being the same as in India-Pakistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan relations; Pakistan sponsored terrorism. In May this year, Iran warned Pakistan that it would hit terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan if the Pakistani Government does not confront militants who carry out cross-border attacks. Iran has reportedly been attacked by the Jaish-al-Adl (JA) terrorist group (Sunni group) several times, escaping back into Pakistani territory immediately after the attack. Jaish-al-Adl says their attacks are because of discrimination against minority groups in Iran. The group had claimed responsibility for killing 14 Iranian border guards in October 2013. In a similar cross-border attack in April 2015, another eight Iranian border guards were killed, with JA claiming responsibility.

Recently, on 26 April 2017, Iran claimed 11 of its border guards were killed and two injured near the town of Mirjaveh in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan by "long-range guns" from across its border in Balochistan; the firing coming from Pakistani territory. As per Iranian reports, these attacks were perpetrated by JA, which has bases in Balochistan. This attack led to Major General Mohammad Baqeri, Chief of Iranian Armed Forces, stating, that "enemies" were trying to make up for their failures through hiring terrorists to target Iran's borders or interests. He said the method was that of "cowardly thieves and bandits" and would only bring the enemies "humiliation and ignominy." He went on to say the border area on the Pakistani side has "unfortunately" turned into a haven and training ground for "Saudi-hired terrorists, who enjoy the US endorsement." Baqeri said Iran "cannot accept the continuation of this situation," adding, "We expect the Pakistani officials to control the borders, arrest the terrorists and shut down their bases... .

If the terrorist attacks continue, we will hit with crushing blows their safe havens and cells, wherever they are." There is striking similarity with what Afghanistan has been repeatedly asking Pakistan to do – shut down terrorist bases on Pakistani soil. However, when Pakistan has institutionalized export of terror as its foreign policy, why would it pay any heed to such repeated requests? Significantly, Baqeri's stern warning came after the Iranian border police stating that "the Pakistani government bears the ultimate responsibility for the attack", followed by a statement from the official spokesman for the Iranian Foreign ministry contending that "the Pakistani government should be held accountable for the presence and operation of these vicious groups on its soil". However, Baqeri's statement indication possible retaliation was responded to by Pakistan in summoning the Iranian ambassador, expressing disappointment over such statements by Iranian officials that were "against the spirit of brotherly relations". According to Pakistani media, Pakistan has made it unequivocally clear that any cross-border attack or movement of Iranian border forces into Pakistan would be a violation of international law; accurate rendition of international law under which armed reprisals by Iran against non-state actors residing in Pakistan would infringe on Article 2(4) of the UN Charter because, without the consent of Pakistan, these attacks would undermine Pakistan's territorial sovereignty. Pakistan gave the usual excuse that Pakistan in no way controls the day-to-day operations of JA.

Then on 21 June 2017, Pakistan shot down an Iranian drone after it was reportedly found flying inside its territory. Pakistani foreign office stated, "The drone was hit by Pakistan Air Force as it was unidentified and was flying at around 3-4km inside Pakistani territory," Pakistan says information about striking down of this drone was shared with Iranian authorities indicating that the drone was struck down by "our security forces as it was unmarked and there was no prior information about its flight." This being the first time ever that an Iranian drone has been shot down by Pakistan, the long-term implications are unlikely to help Iran-Pakistan relations. In July this year, Iranian border guards fired mortar shells into Pakistani territory near the Panjgur border in Balochistan.

The shells landed almost 1.5 km inside Pakistani territory. This is not the first time, Iran has had to resort to firing mortars into Pakistan. Pakistan shares a 900 km porous border with Iran and the two countries had in 2014 decided to boost intelligence coordination to wipe out terrorists from the border region. But Pakistan uses proxies to her strategic advantage only. That is why Iran replacing its 700 km border fence with Pakistan with 10 feet high, three feet thick concrete wall. Iran is also deeply concerned about: Pak proxies attacking and operating in Iran and Afghanistan; Pakistani military actions against Shias in Baluchistan; Pak efforts to Talibanize Afghanistan that would bring them in direct confrontation with Northern Alliance supported by Iran; Pakistan Taliban (linked to Pakistan's ISI) fighting alongside ISIS in Iraq, Syria and now Afghanistan. Pakistan all along has been playing the card of 'Muslim Brothers' with Iran. However, Iran is increasingly upset over Pakistan's decision to join the Saudi-led military alliance against terrorism, and Raheel Sharif, former Pakistani army chief heading this Sunni coalition; the Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) with 41 members nations comprising all Sunni-dominated governments. Given the importance of the CPEC, China is exerting herself to better Iran-Pakistan relations. However, Iran views IMA as the Saudi Arabia efforts to take the leading role in the Middle East and the Muslim world, IMA being an anti-Shia alliance under the shadow of closer US-Saudi relations and Pakistan continuing to export terror under cover of not being in control of various terrorist groups. Geopolitics and incidents like Pakistan alleging Kulbhushan Jadhav was indulging in anti-Pakistan activities have made Iran-Pakistan relations more complicated. Raheel Sharif has been reportedly trying to include Iran into the IMA but this is highly unlikely given the dynamics that have ruled the Arab World through centuries.