The border between Iran and Pakistan in Taftan, Baluchistan.
Pakistan and Iran are both engaged in a struggle against separatist militants in the shared region of Baluchistan. Recent airstrikes in each other's territory have brought the nations closer to a conflict few predicted, writes Suzanne Raine, an affiliate lecturer at the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University.
16 January, Iran’s semi-official news agency Tasnim reported that Iran had fired a combination of missiles and drones on houses in the village of Koh-e-Sabz near the border town of Panjgur in the Baluchistan region of Pakistan, aiming at two key strongholds of the Baluch separatist group Jaish Al-Adl (Army of Justice).
Two days later Pakistan responded with strikes around the city of Saravan in Iran, in what it has named Operation Marg Bar Sarmachar (Death to Fighters), also reportedly targeting Baluch separatists and killing nine. These strikes are being conflated with other hostilities in the Middle East; while they may signal increased nervousness and the exacerbation of tensions, they are separate and part of a much older friction.
In Davos, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said the Iranian strikes were in response to an attack by Jaish Al-Adl on a police station in Rask, a small city in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in south-eastern Iran, on 15 December which killed 11 police officers and wounded seven.
In the immediate term, these fresh hostilities put both spotlight and stress on the relationship between Pakistan and Iran. A press release from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and warned of ‘serious consequences’, lamenting that ‘this illegal act has taken place despite the existence of several channels of communication between Pakistan and Iran’. A few hours earlier, at Davos, Amir-Abdollahian had called for closer interaction and determined effort to counter terrorist threats in a meeting with the caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan, Anwaar ul Haq Kakar.
Who is to blame? Jaish Al-Adl is a Sunni Baluch group fighting for Sunni rights in south-eastern Iran and for an independent Baluchistan. They were formed in 2012 and, since then, have been conducting terrorist operations mainly in Sistan-Baluchistan. As Sunni separatists in Iran, they join the geopolitical tangle of alliances in the region: they share an agenda with other Sunni groups and with Iranian Kurdish separatist groups and are seen by Iranians as being supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US. As usual, these claims are difficult to substantiate. As a terrorist group, they are effective and have been so for a sustained period. Their first attack came in 2012 and killed ten members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Since then they have conducted multiple successful attacks against Iranian border guards, local prosecutors, security forces, police and IRGC, a durability that is especially striking given the nature of the Iranian regime.
Is Pakistan providing safe havens for Baluchi militants? Or is it just failing in the very difficult task of securing the border? Pakistan has become the master of dealing with the ambiguity between those two possible explanations. The 1,000 km-long border between Iran and Pakistan cuts through Baluchistan, which straddles the two countries and also the south-west of Afghanistan. The issue of Baluch independence and identity is not a new one. Writing in 1911, Arnold Keppel, soldier and Conservative MP, observed that: ‘It is well known that the Baluchis have no love for the Persians, and have for years succeeded in evading payment of all revenue, in spite of the periodical expeditions sent to collect it by the Governor-General of Kerman, under whose nominal jurisdiction this district lies.’
The ‘tri-border area’ – where Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan meet – is a lawless desert long known for smuggling of drugs, people and guns. In times of British India, guns were run up the Makran Coast from Muscat, and delivered to Baluchi tribes who then passed them on to the North-West Frontier and Afghanistan. It is now the route by which people move from Afghanistan through the Middle East to Europe and back again – both refugees and terrorists. It is also rich in natural resources, such as gold, copper, coal, oil and natural gas. Who gets these resources – if anyone can – is contested.
Pakistan is also engaged in a violent struggle with Baluch separatists. Since the state’s foundation, it has had to contend with Baluch insurgencies. The Khan of Kalat, and ruler of most of Baluchistan, had no intention of allowing Baluchistan to become part of Pakistan during the partition of India in 1947, but in a swift move by Jinnah he was arrested and the Pakistani army took control of the territory (it makes up 40 per cent of Pakistan’s land mass, although it is sparsely populated).
If Baluchi separatists are an intractable problem both for Iran and for Pakistan, they are also a geopolitical problem. Pakistan has long accused India of supporting Baluchi separatist movements. Iran accuses both Israel and Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorist groups operating within Iran. Cultural as well as geographic contiguity also brings geopolitical guilt by association: the UK’s close links with Pakistan bring with it the issue of Baluch separatists in London. The head of the Free Baluchistan Movement, Hyrbyair Marri, is resident in the UK. His presence in London is a source of considerable friction with Pakistan, which alleges that he is a member of the BLA.
Baluchi separatists are not the only groups to conduct terrorist attacks in Iran. In 2018 gunmen killed 29 at a military parade in south-western Iran, almost half of them Revolutionary Guards. That was blamed (by Iran) on Arab Jihadist groups, and Daesh also claimed the attack.
Iran’s other separatist problem, Kurdish nationalists, is an unconnected additional complication: Israel is known to have close relations with Kurdish groups (indeed, Israel was one of the few states to support the Kurdish independence referendum with Prime Minister Netanyahu saying in September 2017 that ‘Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state’). Iran will be nervous about its own ability to contain these threats, which explains the action.
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