ATbar The Tensions between Iran and Pakistan

The Tensions between Iran and Pakistan

18/05/2020 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

Relations between Iran and Pakistan have been strained in recent months, with both sides accusing each other of not doing enough to stamp out militants allegedly sheltering across the border.

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa called his Iranian counterpart, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Bagheri and asked Tehran to tighten its borders in a bid to curb terrorist attacks on Pakistani security forces by militants allegedly operating from Iran.[1]

Bajwa contacted Bagheri in the wake of an attack on a Frontier Corps patrol team in the Buleda area of Kech district in which six Pakistani security personnel lost their lives. The attack, which took place about 14 km from the Iranian border, was claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). The commanders discussed an array of issues including border fencing and improvement of border terminals.

There have been tensions between Tehran and Islamabad over incidents at the Pak-Iran border and Tehran has long been accusing Islamabad of not acting against militant groups, which have carried out numerous terrorist attacks in Iran’s bordering province of Sistan-Balochistan.

In February 2019, a suicide bomber killed 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards in Sistan – Balochistan. The Sunni group Jaish al Adl (Army of Justice), which says it seeks greater rights and better living conditions for the ethnic Baloch minority, claimed responsibility for that attack. Iranian officials said the attackers operated from safe havens in Pakistan and have repeatedly called on the neighboring country to crack down on them.

In April 2019, an umbrella group representing various Balochi insurgent outfits operating in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province bordering Iran claimed responsibility for an attack, when 14 passengers were killed after being kidnapped from buses on southwestern Pakistan.

The militants checked the identity cards of passengers, singled out some of them, and then kidnapped and killed them. The Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS) umbrella group said it targeted Pakistani navy and Coast Guard officials traveling on buses.[2]

Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said his country was angry about the attack and called for Iran to take action against BRAS militants.

Iran and Pakistan formed the Higher Border Commission (HBC) is a mechanism for consultations between the two countries to discuss all border related issues for enhanced coordination at different levels.             The Pakistan-Iran HBC has decided in July 2019, to improve the coordination and to take the ‘appropriate’ measures including physical installations such as fencing.[3]                                 

The Balochi minority in Iran and Pakistan

The Balochi community is an ethnic group straddles three countries Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Balochi community, boasts a historical narrative that the colonial powers, has left the Baloch people divided among three countries without a country of their own. In their struggle to establish an independent Baluchistan they have felt the sharp end of respective state actions in each of this host states.[4]

The Balochi people speak an Indo-Iranian language that is distantly related to Persian and more closely related to Pashtu, one of the major languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Iran unlike the majority of Shia Persians, the majority of Balochi are Sunni Muslims and this religious difference has been a source of tension.

Sistan - Balochistan is home to at least 1.5 million Balochi people comprising 2% of Iran's population. Most of the principal Balochi tribes in Iran border Pakistan or Afghanistan. The Balochi have been one of the most difficult tribal groups for the central government to control in Iran (as well as in Pakistan).  The Balochi people have suffered political, cultural and socioeconomic discrimination and have been deprived of political and economic opportunities. [5]

aIn Iran the Sistan-Baluchistan region is one of the most underdeveloped and poverty-stricken areas in Iran with limited access to education, employment, health care, and housing, and more than 70 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. [6]

The area is also a hotbed of cross-border smuggling of drugs and arms and has seen occasional clashes between Iranian forces and Baluch separatists, as well as drug traffickers.[7]

Over several decades Balochi groups have fought Iran’s Islamic regime—as well as the neighboring Pakistani government—for greater autonomy or independence. Most militant groups in Baluchistan are based on tribal connections. These tribes have tribal patterns of authority and obligation and a tradition of helping and harboring members of allied tribes and many tribes in Pakistani Baluchistan support their oppressed brothers in Iran.

Local tribes control large swaths of the region and neither Iranian nor Pakistani security forces have a permanent presence in the region. Due to the difficulty in managing the region Tehran has relied on heavy-handed repression to ensure order, an approach that has fed resentment toward the state. [8]

Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA)

The Balochistan Liberation Army is the most widely-known Baloch separatist group. It is the armed wing of the Balochistan separatist movement and while the political leaders of the mainstream Baloch movement are said to be sympathetic to the BLA, they do not publicly acknowledge their support.

Baloch nationalists accuse the Pakistani state of systematically suppressing its development to keep the Balochis suppressed and exploiting resources in Balochistan, without sharing any of the proceeds with the local tribes. [9]

The group, primarily, seeks independence from Pakistan and wishes to form a separate state of ‘Greater Balochistan’.           

With a cadre of 6,000, the group has been spearheading the insurgency against Pakistan since 2000 and has conducted several violent attacks in the country. It is categorized as a terrorist group by Pakistan, UK and the US.

The BLA operates mainly in the province of Balochistan and the bordering areas of Afghanistan. Since the BLA officially launched its operations in 2000, it has conducted many lethal attacks in Pakistan primarily targeting the military.[10]


The border fence between Iran and Pakistan [11]

Pakistan has a 900-km border with Iran, begins at the Koh-i-Malik Salih mountain and ends at Gwadar Bay in the Gulf of Oman. Pakistan has started to fence its border with neighboring Iran in March 2019, in an attempt to stop militants’ cross-border movement and smuggling.[12]

Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) on April 29,2020, approved 3 billion rupees ($18.6 million) in additional funds for the fencing of its border with Iran.

The Senate of Pakistan was informed by the Frontier Constabulary of Balochistan on May 10, 2019, that the country had started fencing certain areas of the border which were hotspots for smuggling and militant movement.

The border fence between Afghanistan and Pakistan

Pakistan has already fenced a 370-kilometer-long portion of Pak-Afghan border -- commonly known as Duran Line -- to stop the cross-border movement of militants. Afghanistan does not recognize the Durand Line -- a 2,640-kilometer-long border, which was established in 1893 in line with an agreement between India under British colonial rule, and Abdur Rahman Khan, the then-ruler of Afghanistan.

But Afghanistan rather sees it as an annexation of the “Greater Afghanistan” by the British Raj before Pakistan and India came into being in 1947.[13]

Summary

Pakistan and Iran share a 900-kilometer-long porous border and historically they have been collaborators rather than rivals, but crosscutting alliances with other countries and tensions at their mutual border have strained relations.  Traditionally deep cultural, economic and religious bilateral relations have come under pressure in recent months in the wake of an increase in deadly cross-border attacks. 

                              

Tensions between Pakistan and Iran against the backdrop of terrorist activities by the Balochi separatists are being added to a complex relationship between the countries due to Pakistan being a close ally of Iran's enemies, the US and Saudi Arabia.

For decades, Pakistan has been closer to Saudi Arabia and the US than to Iran, but Pakistani leaders have tried to avoid being perceived anti-Iranian.  Pakistani Prime Minister Iran Khan is also trying to be in a mediation position between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the US, but at present, with limited success.

The southeastern Iranian, Sistan-Balochistan province, of predominantly Balochi Sunni Muslims has long been plagued by drug smuggling gangs and separatists.[14] Iranian separatists justify their violent campaign, saying it is retaliation for what they call Iran’s oppression against Sistan-Baluchistan’s predominantly Sunni population.

Pakistan's Balochistan province itself is under attack from local Baloch insurgents. The Balochistan Liberation Army is the most widely-known Baloch separatist group, responsible for many lethal attacks in Pakistan.

Tehran has long alleged that anti-Iranian Sunni extremists use hideouts in the Pakistani border province of Balochistan for plotting terrorism against Iran. Iran has accused Pakistan of supporting Baloch insurgent groups and threatened to attack their bases if Islamabad does not confront them.

Pakistani security agencies believe that over the past few years Iranian intelligence services have forged ties with Baloch separatists to counter Iranian militants, who are allegedly having sanctuaries in Pakistan. This has widened trust deficit between the two countries.

The two countries have a shared interest in quelling Baloch nationalist aspirations and Pakistan and Iran have agreed on a number of border mechanisms, which improved the border security situation, but occasionally incidents happen that further strain the relations between the neighbors.

The terrorist activities of the Balochi separatists are increasing the tension between Pakistan and Iran. Iran is blaming Pakistan's allies Saudi Arabia and the US for helping the Balochi separatists operating against it from Pakistan. A claim that both the US and Pakistan strongly deny.

The two countries have a shared interest in quelling Baloch nationalist aspirations but If Pakistan and Iran fail to reach understandings and effective cooperation on the fight against the Balochi terrorism, their relationship could end up in crisis.


[1] Pakistan army chief asks Iran to tighten border security, stop terror attacks, Arab news, May 13, 2020.

[2] Shahabuddin Shahab, Pakistan asks Iran to act on militants behind Baluchistan killings, Reuters, April 20, 2019.

[3] Pakistan, Iran agree on border fencing, the news, July 19, 2019.

[4] Joshua Castellino and Kathleen A. Cavanavgh, Minority rights in Middle East, Oxford University press, 2013, p -6.

[5] Militants claim responsibility for Iran troop's abduction, Arab News, October 22, 2018.

[6] Nicholas Cappuccino, Baluch Insurgents in Iran, the Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace, April 27, 2017.

[7] Nasser Karimi , Militants seize 14 Iranian security forces near Pakistan, The Associated Press, October. 16, 2018.

[8] Nicholas Cappuccino, Baluch Insurgents in Iran, the Iran Primer, United States Institute of Peace, April 27, 2017.

[9] Srijan Shukla, who are Baloch Liberation Army? Insurgents who killed 30 in Pakistan in last one week, the print, February 20, 2020.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Pakistan army chief asks Iran to tighten border security, stop terror attacks, Arab news, May 13, 2020.

[12] Pakistan to fence border with Iran, Andalu, March 19, 2019.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Iran says it 'foiled' attempted suicide attacks from Pakistan, VOA, March 13, 2018.

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