Where is the Iran-Pakistan relationship heading?

9 min read
23 January, 2024

This year has been off to a rough start in terms of Iran and Pakistan’s bilateral relations.

On 16 January, Iran’s military fired a barrage of missiles at a village in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, resulting in the death of two children.

The strike was directed at two bases belonging to Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), which Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian described as an “Iranian terrorist organisation”.

With a presence in Pakistan, the group has a record of waging attacks in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province. As an offshoot of Jundallah, Jaish al-Adl is a militant Baloch separatist group that claims to be fighting for improved living conditions and more rights for Iran’s ethnic Baloch minority.

Two days later, Pakistan’s army retaliated. Using drones, rockets, and long-range missiles, Pakistan carried out “precision strikes” targeting the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) around Saravan, an Iranian city in Sistan and Baluchistan. Seven people who were not Iranian nationals lost their lives, according to Iranian authorities.

"Carrying out attacks inside Pakistan and then openly acknowledging it was quite brazen from Iran and something that Pakistan couldn't tolerate"

Tehran and Islamabad quickly put diplomatic energy into de-escalating and preventing tensions from spiralling out of control. Nonetheless, these cross-border strikes will certainly have a negative impact on bilateral relations.

From a national security standpoint, the area along the Iranian-Pakistani border has long been a major source of concern for officials in both Tehran and Islamabad.

For many years, Iran’s government has seen militant Sunni groups such as Jaish al-Adl as a huge threat. Many in Iran allege that Jaish al-Adl is linked to Israel, and some maintain that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states used to support the group but have stopped doing so within the context of the Saudi-Iranian and Emirati-Iranian détente.

Similarly, Pakistan’s authorities perceive a grave menace from separatist groups such as BLA and BLF, which maintain a presence in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province and have waged attacks inside Pakistan.

Iran’s 16 January strike was a bold move that followed Iranian missile strikes against Syria’s Idlib province and northern Iraq two days earlier. Iran waged this military action against targets in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan within the context of various attacks that have taken place on Iranian soil and against Iranian military figures and interests throughout the region since late last year.

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On 3 January, there was an attack at a memorial for Qassem Soleimani held in Kerman, resulting in almost 100 deaths and 284 injuries. Although the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, Iranian officials blame Israel and the US for the bomb blasts.

On 14 December, Jaish al-Adl killed 11 Iranian security forces at a police station in Rask, a town located in Sistan and Baluchistan, in an attack that two days later members of the UN Security Council condemned as “cowardly”. Also, on 25 December, Israel killed Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) advisor, in an airstrike just outside the Syrian capital.

Such episodes have left the Islamic Republic feeling increasingly vulnerable to its adversaries. There is no denying that Iran’s authorities came under significant domestic pressure to demonstrate that Tehran does not allow attacks on Iranian soil to go unanswered.

Iran’s 16 January strike was meant to “deter” Jaish al-Adl. But the extremist group’s killing of the IRGC Colonel Hossein Ali Javidanfar and two of his guards in Sistan and Baluchistan one day after Iran fired missiles at Pakistan underscored Tehran’s failure to establish “deterrence” over the non-state actor.

The cross-border strikes will certainly have a negative impact on bilateral relations. [Getty]

“Deterrence is the obsession of all states and considering the temperature in the region that probably played a part,” Dr Rouzbeh Parsi, the head of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs' Middle East and North Africa programme, told The New Arab.

“In general, I'm sceptical when states claim they can solve these kinds of problems through military strikes - see what the US has been doing for decades in the region.”

In the case of Iran’s military operation against Jaish al-Adl, Dr Parsi believes that “potentially a degrading of Jaish al-Adl’s capabilities” is what Tehran can most realistically hope for at this point.

Just as Iran struck a target in Pakistan to establish “deterrence”, Islamabad also felt its own need to reinforce the ability of Pakistan, as a nuclear-armed state, to “deter” foreign powers from attacking it.

“[Iran’s 16 January operation] was a surprise because [the bilateral] relationship had remained tense in the past…particularly owing to security issues on [the] border,” Dr Umer Karim, an associate fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, told TNA.

"The attack made it impossible for Pakistan not to retaliate in kind, which rendered Iran's territory subject to a foreign attack for the first time since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988"

“But carrying out attacks inside Pakistan and then openly acknowledging it was quite brazen from Iran [and] something that Pakistan couldn’t tolerate. This heavily compromised Pakistan’s strategic deterrence and in order to restore that Pakistan had to respond.”

Dr Tehmina Aslam Ranjha, a national security analyst and member of the Women Peace Council of Pakistan, noted that Iran’s strikes could be “interpreted as a message to Pakistan and other regional actors about the seriousness with which Iran views the threat of insurgent groups and its willingness to take unilateral military action if necessary”.

However, she asserted that Iran’s approach “underestimated Pakistan’s response capabilities and the complexities of bilateral relations”.

Deterioration of trust

As a consequence of these cross-border strikes, trust between Tehran and Islamabad will likely be eroded for some time. This is especially the case on Pakistan’s side considering that officials in Islamabad did not expect the Iranians to take such an action.

“Iranian air raids into Pakistan’s Baluchistan province were surprising. The strikes, targeting a militant group, came at a time when diplomatic and cooperative military engagements between Iran and Pakistan were ongoing, including joint naval exercises and high-level meetings in Davos,” Dr Ranjha told TNA.

“This context creates a backdrop where Iran’s unilateral military action appears unexpected and contradictory to the ongoing diplomatic efforts.”

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Iran’s strike against Jaish al-Adl was an “unforced error on Tehran’s part” and the episode will weaken Iran’s “political posture in the region”, according to Dr Parsi.

Iran’s “unprecedented and unwise” attack has damaged Tehran-Islamabad relations at a time in which the Iranians need Pakistan’s cooperation when it comes to efforts to degrade militant Balochi factions in the region, according to Dr Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.

“Iran should and could have shared the relevant intelligence with and pre-warned Pakistan and only acted if they had refused to take pre-emptive action. The attack made it impossible for Pakistan not to retaliate in kind, which rendered Iran's territory subject to a foreign attack for the first time since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988,” observed Dr Vaez.

Damage to Iran's reputation in Pakistan

Iran’s image in the eyes of Pakistan’s citizens will take a blow because of its 16 January operation against Jaish al-Adl. “Iran had a fairly good repute amongst a huge number of Pakistanis even beyond the Shia community and people considered it as a beacon of anti-American resistance. These air strikes have tarnished this Iranian reputation quite badly and now people consider it to be another state which will take aim at Pakistan whenever it gets a chance,” noted Dr Karim.

Dr Rabia Akhtar, the director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore, agrees that Tehran’s violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty are set to undermine Iran’s goodwill among the Pakistani public and policymaking community.

Activists protest in Lahore on 19 January 2024 after Iran launched an airstrike in Pakistan's southwest Balochistan province. [Getty]

“At a time when there are ample opportunities to reset and enhance Pakistan-Iran relations for mutual economic and trade benefits, this volatile situation only serves as an unnecessary and avoidable source of tension,” she told TNA.

“Iran has significantly eroded its goodwill in Pakistan. This intangible cost cannot be overlooked, particularly in an environment plagued by propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation. Moreover, Pakistan's swift retaliation has exposed Iran’s vulnerabilities and its ability to withstand a stronger adversary. While Pakistan is not Iran’s nemesis, its precise targeting of seven legitimate military targets has dealt a blow to the perceived invincibility of the Iranian military apparatus,” added Dr Akhtar.

Reasons to be optimistic about de-escalation

The problems in Iranian-Pakistani relations are serious. But since Pakistan waged its retaliatory strikes, Tehran and Islamabad have been able to cool tensions and there are at least five key factors which indicate that both sides will take the necessary steps to prevent further escalation down the road.

First, although both sides recalled their ambassadors, the cross-border strikes did not result in any severance of diplomatic relations. Also, the ambassadors will return by 26 January and Tehran’s chief diplomat will visit Pakistan on 29 January.

The diplomatic engagement between Iranian and Pakistani officials in the aftermath of Islamabad’s retaliatory strikes spoke to their shared desire to engage in dialogue as opposed to resorting to more military action.

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“Neither side has an interest in further escalation. Now that they have each taken a step, they can step back from the brink,” Dr Vaez told TNA.

“It was truly uplifting to witness the calm and measured response from both nations, as they skilfully deescalated the situation. Not a single Iranian or Pakistani official resorted to inflammatory rhetoric, demonstrating a profound awareness of the importance of preserving their deep-rooted historical, religious, and potentially strategic bonds,” said Dr Akhtar.

Second, the relatively low death toll on the Pakistani side and the fact that Islamabad’s retaliatory strikes did not kill any Iranian citizens made it easier for the two countries to take offramps rather than continue down the dangerous path of further escalation.

Third, although the lack of coordination contributed to major tension and prompted Islamabad to determine that it had to retaliate, both Tehran and Islamabad were keen to stress that these strikes targeted “terrorist” organisations rather than the other country’s armed forces.

Fourth, given the magnitude of Iran and Pakistan’s major economic problems and other domestic crises, officials in both Tehran and Islamabad realise that an Iranian-Pakistani war would be catastrophic for both countries and the wider region. Thus, neither country has any incentive to escalate further at this point.

"Neither side has an interest in further escalation. Now that they have each taken a step, they can step back from the brink"

Finally, China and Russia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)’s leaders, both maintain significant leverage over Iran and Pakistan. Beijing and Moscow have vested interests in preventing tensions between Tehran and Islamabad from spiralling out of control. Both Iran and Pakistan are SCO members.

Although the SCO might have limited ability to resolve disputes between its various members, Beijing’s clout in Tehran and Islamabad could result in China being an effective mediator should tension between the neighbouring Islamic Republics heat up again.

At the end of the day, Beijing’s ability to help West Asian states resolve their disputes is important to China’s image as an emerging leader on the international stage.

Therefore, across the world many will be paying attention to China’s ability to mediate between Iran and Pakistan should the two countries have difficulty managing bilateral tensions on their own.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero