Are relations between Pakistan and Iran souring?

By Roberto Pucciano CEO of

Already locked into a confrontation with the US and the Sunni Gulf Arab states in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, relations with Iran’s eastern neighbour Pakistan could be turning sour as well. But while Pakistan has tried to maintain a balance between Teheran and Riyadh during their recent quarrels despite a close security relationship with the Saudi royal family, relations between Islamabad and Tehran are growing more uneasy. Neither power has been immune to growth in sectarianism in the Islamic world between Sunni and Shia communities. Equally both Pakistan and Iran are fragile multi-ethnic states, whose mutual borders with each other and Afghanistan divide the restive province of Baluchistan into three parts with often unhappy results.

The latest upset is the reaction in Tehran to the killing of ten of its border guards in the south-eastern Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Iran’s Tasnim news agency claimed that the attackers were Sunni militants from Jaish al-Adl (“Army of Justice”), which has claimed a number of attacks in south-eastern Iran since its formation in 2012. The group claims to be fighting discrimination against ethnic Baluchis and Sunni Muslims in Sistan and Baluchistan province. The Iranian government however has publicly blamed Islamabad, saying the Pakistani government bore ultimate responsibility for the attack since the attackers crossed from the Pakistani side of the border.

Jihadists, Baluchi separatists and drug smuggling gangs have long contributed to violent unrest on both sides of the Pakistani-Iranian border and Islamabad has long repressed the Baluchis on its side. But Tehran suspects that as with terrorist proxies in India and Afghanistan, parts of the Pakistani security establishment (with support from Arab states in the Persian Gulf) see backing the group as leverage against Shia Iran. Three years ago a string of similar attacks on Iranian security forces ended with an international incident after Iranian troops entered Pakistani territory “in hot pursuit” of suspected militants and caused the death of a Pakistani Frontier Corps soldier.

While a war between a nuclear armed Pakistan and an Iran distracted by directing events in Iraq, Yemen and Syria is extremely unlikely, escalating tensions between the two powers would be bad news for the Middle East and south-west Asia. Both nations have developed the use of terrorist networks, foreign mercenaries and local private armies as foreign policy tools and both have military branches with units capable of operating in conflicts abroad. In the event of rising tensions this raises the ugly spectre of proxy conflicts between the two states in battlegrounds such as Afghanistan or Yemen, or the direct sponsorship of militant groups in each other’s country.

Tehran was certainly alarmed by the revelation in April that the respected former Pakistani chief of staff Raheel Sharif has travelled to Riyadh to head up a 39-member Saudi-led ‘anti-terrorist’ coalition. Described as a Muslim NATO by Saudi PR firms, the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism is seen by Tehran as a sectarian Sunni alliance. Iran is wary that the appointment of Sharif is a sign that Saudi pressure is slowly wearing down Pakistani resistance to greater involvement in its feud with Iran, at a time of mounting American hostility towards Iran also. A switch in Pakistani policy from neutrality to hostility would leave Iran fighting on two fronts, defending its eastern border whilst still propping up President Bashir al-Assad in Syria.

This would seem the opposite of what Islamabad is looking to achieve in its foreign policy relations at the moment. After all, while Pakistan has a decades-long military alliance with the Saudi royal family and other Gulf monarchies and has pledged to defend them in the event of an Iranian attack, it refrained from sending ground troops to fight in Yemen two years ago. But the South Asian nation remains heavily dependent upon remittances from Pakistanis working in Gulf countries and financial support from the Saudis despite its growing trade links to China. With the deployment of a brigade of troops to Saudi Arabia and Sharif’s appointment to head the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism it is clear that the Saudis are making headway in their quest to draw Pakistan into the quarrels of the Middle East.

In fact, regardless of the links between the Pakistani security services and groups like Jaish al-Adl, or the wiles of the Saudi royal family, relations between Iran and Pakistan have been cool for decades. Only the fact that each government had greater enemies to worry about ­ – arch-rival India in Pakistan’s case and the US and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the case of Iran – prevented greater strife following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Pakistan’s then military dictator General Zia-ul Haq had begun the Islamisation of Pakistani politics and deepened his country’s alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia during the same period Tehran was denouncing America. One enduring legacy of the general remains a tolerance of deeply conservative religious parties and views in Pakistani politics.

Under Zia’s regime, sectarianism in Pakistan between Shia and Sunnis also deepened during the final stages of the Cold War. Even after it ended Pakistan’s victorious proteges in the Taliban strained relations by viciously persecuting Afghani Hazaras, a Persian-speaking Shia ethnic group close to Iran. One notorious Taliban massacre of Hazaras in 1998 also saw eight Iranian officials at the Iranian consulate and an Iranian journalist murdered. Meanwhile just as Sunnis in Iran complain of discrimination against their community today, across the border in Pakistan Shia Muslims and other minorities are often the victims of Sunni militant violence. Iran has used this to recruit hundreds of Pakistani Shias to fight in Syria, the kind of activity that makes Sunni dominated governments see an Iranian plot behind every outbreak of unrest in Shia communities in their home countries.

The consequences of any increase in Iranian-Pakistani tension could be felt most painfully inside Pakistan itself. Sunni-Shiite tension inside Pakistan will increase with Sharif’s appointment to head the Saudi-led alliance; analysts warn Pakistan’s homegrown militants will take it as a greenlight to step up their attacks on Shias. Moreover, if Iran declines to accept Pakistani reassurances that the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism is aimed at groups like Islamic State and not the regimes of Iraq and Syria, then it may opt to make trouble for Pakistan at home or abroad in places like Afghanistan or Yemen where it has loyal proxies. Pakistan’s military may even find itself chasing Baluchi separatists in Iranian territory as a result. In that case, expect a cool relationship to become distinctly frosty.


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