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Pakistan – Iran Stand off UPSC NOTE

 What prompted Iran to target Balochistan, and how did Pakistan respond to the missile strikes?

  • In a series of events, Iran launched missile strikes in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

  •  Iran targeting alleged strongholds of the Jaish al-Adl. 

  • In response, Pakistan condemned the attacks.

  • Recalling its Ambassador and expelling the Iranian Ambassador.

  • While also suspending high profile bilateral visits.

  • A day later, Pakistan retaliated by targeting individuals and terrorist groups in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province. 

  • However, with a diplomatic approach, Pakistan emphasised its respect for Iran, preventing further escalation. 

  • On January 19, at a National Security Council meeting aimed at addressing security concerns for regional peace.

  • Both nations decided to de-escalate, reinstating ambassadors, and by January 28, Iran’s Foreign Minister arrived in Islamabad to discuss economic and security matters, signaling a shift towards dialogue and cooperation.

  • First, the demography and geography of the provinces. 

  • The Sistan-Baluchestan province, one of the largest provinces in Iran, shares the border with Pakistan’s Balochistan and Afghanistan’s southern provinces. 

  • The Baloch are the majority in the Sistan-Baluchestan province, with Sistanis as a minority

  • The former is Sunni, while the latter is Shia.

  • Geographically, Balochistan is the largest of four provinces in Pakistan, with a Baloch majority (which is now being threatened by the Pashtun ingress from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). 

  • However, Baloch are a minority within Pakistan.

  • Second, the borders. 

  • Pakistan’s Balochistan province shares a long border with Iran, around 900 km

  • Unlike the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which is disputed by Kabul, the Pakistan-Iran border is settled. 

  • Both countries have been building a concrete wall along the border to prevent illegal crossings between Balochistan (in Pakistan) and Sistan-Baluchestan (in Iran) provinces. 

  • However, the border remains ineffective in preventing the illicit movement of people and goods, especially along the land and maritime borders. 

  • Smuggling is common, especially in the south, closer to the Pakistan-Iran maritime border.

  • Third, two ports of strategic importance — Gwadar in Pakistan and Chabahar in Iran, are situated on the mouths of the Arabian Sea less than 200 km apart. 

  • China and India have invested in these two ports and see them as exit and entry points from/into maritime/mainland Asia. 

  • Baloch provinces are strategically important for Iran and Pakistan.

What key factors contributed to the decision for both nations to de-escalate tensions? 

  • If the escalation was fast, de-escalation was faster

  • Immediately after Iran’s initial attack, Pakistan recalled its Ambassador and asked the Iranian Ambassador to leave. 

  • Two days later, Pakistan targeted a few militant targets in the Sistan-Baluchestan province in Iran.

  • After the swift diplomatic and military escalation, there was a de-escalation. 

  • China is believed to have pressured Islamabad and Tehran

  • But more than any external pressure, the bilateral dynamics might have led to the de-escalation.

  • Given the regional security situation and the immediate neighbourhood, both countries cannot afford an escalation now.

  • It appears that Iran’s missile strikes in Pakistan had a limited objective as a part of its targets in Syria and Iraq in response to an earlier attack in January 2024 in Kerman

  • Similarly, Pakistan’s response seems limited in making a domestic and a bilateral statement.

  • Both have been careful with their statements to ensure it does not escalate.

  • Besides there have been efforts in recent years aimed at a rapprochement, which they did not want to jeopardise.

How did the arrival of Iran’s Foreign Minister in Islamabad impact economic and security discussions between the two countries?

  • In Pakistan, Iran targeted a relatively little-known Sunni militant group — “Jaish al-Adl,” based in Balochistan. 

  • According to Iran’s Foreign Minister, “none of the nationals of the friendly and brotherly country of Pakistan were targeted by Iranian missiles and drones.

  • The Jundullah, believed to be founded by Abdolmalek Rigi, was present then in the Sistan-Baluchestan province and has repeatedly been targeting Iran’s security forces and civilian targets through terrorist activities, including suicide bombings. 

  • Iran has been targeting the Jundullah leader; Rigi, a Baloch, was captured and executed in 2010.

  • Jundullah was a Sunni group with links to al Qaeda and fighting for “Sunni” rights, rather than an ethnic Baloch militant group. 

  • However, Tehran considers that the Jundullah had the support of the Baloch people across the Sistan-Baluchestan and Balochistan provinces in Iran and Pakistan, respectively

  • After Rigi’s death, a few Jundullah members formed the Jaish al-Adl and continued attacking Iran during the 2010s.

  • Between 2013-2023, the Jaish al-Adl is accused of having carried out numerous attacks, mainly targeting Iran’s security officials; the latest one was in December 2023, where they targeted a police station in Rask in Sistan-Baluchestan, killing 11 security personnel.

  • In Iran, Pakistan targeted the hideouts belonging to the “Balochistan Liberation Army” and “Balochistan Liberation Front.” 

  • Pakistan has been fighting multiple waves of Baloch insurgency since 1947

  • The latest wave of insurgency intensified after the killing of Akbar Bugti, one of the tallest Baloch leaders. 

  • Unlike the Jundullah, the Baloch militant organisations do not have a sectarian agenda or have links with international organisations such as al Qaeda

  • They have an ethnic agenda and fight for greater rights for the Baloch; some of them have a separatist agenda and want to establish an independent Balochistan.

What challenges lie ahead for Pakistan and Iran?

  • Though Tehran was one of the first to recognise Pakistan, since the 1979 Iranian revolution

  • The two countries had a troubled relationship.

  • Iran’s revolution in 1979 and Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in Pakistan during the 1980s brought the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide to the fore between the two

  • Though both refer to the “brotherly Muslim countries” rhetoric, the sectarian factor was too strong to patch the divide.

  • Globally, Iran saw Pakistan under the American sphere of influence during the Cold War and post 9/11, especially in Afghanistan. 

  • Pakistan and Iran remained in opposite groups; only in recent years has China tried to bring Islamabad and Tehran together.

  • The struggle for supremacy, within the West Asia, pitches Iran and Saudi Arabia on opposite camps, with Pakistan aligned with the latter. 

  • On Afghanistan and the Taliban, both countries have differed on objectives and strategies

  • Until recently, Pakistan viewed Tehran as closer to New Delhi than Islamabad. 

  • Pakistan’s nuclear bomb is seen as a Sunni one, pushing Tehran to have its own for the Shia world.

  • Finally, economically, the bilateral relationship is not strong enough to create a political stake.

  • The fact that Iran is planning to approach international arbitration for Pakistan’s reluctance to move ahead with the Iran-Pakistan pipeline should underline the harsh realities for Islamabad and Tehran.


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