By Abdul Basit Khan
March 1, 2021
The recent killings of ten ethnic Baloch fuel traders, trying to smuggle untaxed Iranian diesel into Pakistan, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has brought into sharp focus the perennial problems of cross-border smuggling and militancy along the Pak-Iran border region. In retaliation, the angry Baloch protesters ransacked a government building and a police station in the Iranian Sistan-Balochistan province’s Sarvan city.
The Iranian authorities dispersed the protesters using tear gas and baton charge. The telephone lines and internet service were suspended ahead of the crackdown to control the spread of information and limit communication among protesters. In recent years, protest demonstrations in Sistan-Balochistan province have become commonplace over political disenfranchisement and poor socio-economic conditions.
Sistan-Balochistan is one of Iran’s most impoverished and least developed regions. The province is home to 1.5 million Sunni Balochs, two percent of Iran’s predominantly Shia population. Sistan-Balochistan has limited employment opportunities forcing the locals to rely on cross-border smuggling with Pakistan.
Despite common cultural heritage and shared history, Iran and Pakistan have divergent geopolitical interests and strategic outlooks in the region. Iran backs the former northern alliance group in Afghanistan, while Pakistan supports the Taliban. Similarly, Iran has close relations with India and Russia, together with cordial ties with Armenia. Contrarily, Pakistan has deep relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Given these cross-cutting alliances and differing strategic priorities, Tehran and Islamabad have complicated and trouble-prone bilateral ties.
For a long time, border security has been a significant irritant in Iran-Pakistan ties. The Iran-Pakistan border region is infested with criminal gangs, militant networks and drug traffickers. Pakistan’s 900-kilometer-long porous border with Iran is mostly dry and arid. It starts at the Koh-i-Malik Salih mountain and ends at Gwadar Bay in the Gulf of Oman.
Both Iran and Pakistan accuse each other of harboring militants across the border. For instance, the captured Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav who was financing and providing assistance to the Pakistani Baloch separatist groups, operated out of Iran’s Chahbahar city in 2016. Likewise, the head of the Iranian separatist outfit, Jaish-ul-Adl, Omar Shahoozi and his sons were killed in a security raid in November 2020 in Turbat, Pakistan.
Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan and Pakistan’s Balochistan provinces are sparsely populated and witnessing insurgencies against their respective states. Though the Pakistani and Iranian Balochs share religious, cultural and ethnic bonds, their revolts are qualitatively different in nature. The insurgency in Sistan-Balochistan is ethno-sectarian in character, while the Pakistani Baloch separatist groups are waging a nationalist-separatist struggle. The Balochs in Sistan-Balochistan are religiously discriminated against by the Iranian Shia regime. They are barred from building mosques and non-Baloch have always been appointed in high positions in the province.
Jaish-ul-Adl has carried out several attacks against IRGC personnel from its hideouts in Balochistan. For instance, the group kidnapped two Iranian security officials near the border with Pakistan in October 2018. Similarly, a Jaish-ul-Adl suicide bomber killed 27 IRGC members in February 2019. Following this attack, the IRGC Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari warned Pakistan to take action against Jaish-ul-Adal hideouts.
Likewise, the Iran-based Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS), an umbrella group of four Pakistani-Baloch separatist groups, killed 14 passengers in Ormara in April 2019. BRAS consists of a coalition of the Baloch Liberation Army, the Balochistan Liberation Front, the Baloch Republican Army and the Baloch Republican Guards. After the Ormara attack, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi expressed his anger and demanded Iran to take action against the BRAS militants.
After these violent incidents, Iran and Pakistan constituted a joint rapid reaction force to improve the border security without much success. In 2017, the Iran-Pakistan Higher Border Commission, represented by four members from both countries, was also established for better border management and coordination.
Likewise, both countries have also constructed or are in the process of completing border barriers to supplement further efforts to improve border security and stop the illegal cross-border movement of militants and smugglers. Iran has constructed a 700-kilometer wall on its border with Pakistan. Presently, Pakistan is fencing its frontier with Iran at an estimated cost of $20 million. So far, 37 percent of the fencing has been completed and the remaining work will be completed by the end of 2021.
The recent upheaval in the Pakistan-Iran border region should be viewed against the backdrop of border fencing, which is disrupting the lives and livelihoods of impoverished Baloch tribes dependent on (illegal) cross-border trade. Like the Gwadar-Ramdhan border opening inaugurated in December 2020, Pakistan and Iran should also consider opening smaller border crossings to facilitate cross-border trade without compromising the border region’s security. Simultaneously, accommodative policies aimed at addressing the grievances and disenfranchisement of the local Baloch tribes in both countries are equally important.