By Umer Karim
April 30, 2019
Pakistan’s relationship with its western neighbor Iran was exceptionally cordial under the regime of the Shah of Iran, but since Iran’s ‘Islamic’ Revolution of the late 70’s, bilateral ties have witnessed a cooling down. This evolution in the nature of engagement between the two countries has been shaped by two things: on one hand, by changing regional geopolitics which have affected state security and strategic interests and on the other hand, by the political identity of both countries in flux.
A core concern between the two states has been the law and order situation in the border areas. This only really became a serious issue after the downfall of Reza Shah Pehlavi’s regime in Iran in 1979, when the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan and Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan began witnessing considerable violence along their shared border, carried out by Baloch insurgents on both sides against the state security apparatuses.
This cross-border violence has effectively undermined bilateral ties. Iranian authorities have repeatedly accused Pakistan of harboring Iranian insurgents belonging to Jundallah and Jaish Al-Adl, often without providing any significant evidence. Pakistan in return has responded in a cautious and diplomatic manner and stressed upon the need for bilateral cooperation in the security domain. One interesting case was the arrest of Jundallah’s chief Abdul Malek Regi in 2010 which is widely believed it was made possible only with the help of Pakistan’s security institutions. Despite this, Iranian government and security circles have preferred to maintain an aggressive approach towards Pakistan and its security establishment.
Since 2006, Pakistani Balochistan has witnessed an insurgency by Baloch separatist organizations, although this has lost the momentum it once had. Alongside sectarian organizations, these outfits have been involved in attacks that target both security forces and civilians in Pakistan, and have led to a great loss of life.
Pakistani authorities view these occurrences as a deliberate campaign allegedly orchestrated by the Indian Intelligence Agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to destabilize Balochistan and deteriorate the law and order situation in the province. The initiation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $62 billion infrastructure project that is part of Beijing’s belt and road initiative, and that aims to position the port of Gwadar in Balochistan as a regional trade hub, has increased the geostrategic significance of the province. The subsequent arrest of an Indian intelligence operative, Kulbhushan Yadav in 2016 while he entered Pakistan from Iran, changed the perspective on the Pakistani side regarding Iran’s role in the Indian sabotage offensive in Balochistan.
In October last year, when Imran Khan’s new government took office in Islamabad, it stressed upon the need to improve ties with neighboring countries and Iranian foreign minister Jawad Zarif visited Islamabad soon after. Yet, it was quickly made clear that the Iranian government didn’t approve of attempts by Prime Minister Khan to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia. The unease grew when 27 Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) personnel were killed in a bombing near the Pakistan border in February this year.
In the Iranian media and government circles, a comprehensive campaign against Pakistan got underway, castigating Islamabad for inaction against these factions. Meanwhile, the statement from the IRGC chief blamed Saudi Arabia and the UAE for sponsoring these attacks. It also accused Pakistan’s security circles of supporting and harboring terrorists and threatened Pakistan with grave consequences.
Earlier this month, 14 Pakistan army personnel were off-loaded from buses and killed near the coastal town of Ormara in Pakistani Balochistan, and the responsibility of the attack was accepted by Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar, a newly formed umbrella group of Baloch insurgent organizations. Pakistan demanded “visible” action from Iran against these terror outfits based inside the Iranian border region.
It appears that Pakistan’s government and security apparatus only now realize what the (former) IRGC chief meant in his statement: that Iran has deliberately turned a blind eye towards the activities of outfits supported by Indian intelligence networks on their soil.
It was on this unfortunate note that Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Iran last week, alongside Pakistan’s intelligence chief. In a significant give-away to Iran, Khan acknowledged the use of Pakistani soil being by militant groups against Iran. Despite this, the Iranian side preferred to remain silent on the recent Ormara attack and the workings of Indian intelligence operatives within their borders.
It would seem that Khan and Pakistan’s security hierarchy have decided it is better to engage politically with Iran rather than come to a confrontation, or to adopt an anti-Iran initiative. But will this leap of faith work? The jury is still out.