In an unprecedented and unprovoked move, Iran launched cross-border military strikes inside the Pakistani territory allegedly against the terrorist outfits of Jaish-e-Adal on January 16, 2024. Pakistan vehemently condemned these uncalled-for attacks and launched its operation ‘Marg Bar Sarmachar’ against the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) hideouts inside the Siestan-Baluchistan province of Iran.
Pakistan downgraded its diplomatic relations by recalling its ambassador back from Tehran and asked the Pakistani airlines not to use Iranian airspace.
It also asked the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan not to return to Islamabad and cut off all planned bilateral meetings. However, both Iran and Pakistan officially stated that these attacks/strikes were carried out against the terrorist outfits and their hideouts, and they respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of each other. Though this standoff was very brief it shocked everyone in the region and called into question the unprecedented goodwill between the two nations.
Luckily, sanity and wisdom prevailed and the foreign ministers of Iran and Pakistan during a telephonic conversation, agreed to restore full diplomatic relations; both ambassadors to resume their responsibilities from January 26. Importantly, on the invitation of the Pakistani foreign minister, the Iranian foreign minister will be visiting Pakistan on January 29, 2024.
In the backdrop of a meeting between the Pakistani caretaker prime minister and the Iranian foreign minister at Davos, hours before the Iranian attacks, and the ongoing joint naval exercise by the two states in the Strait of Hormoz, the border strikes were shocking and beyond imagination. The prompt and stunning decision to strike by both Iran and Pakistan was never expected in the prevailing regional milieu and in the presence of several bilateral channels of communication.
Many states, including China, Turkey, Russia, and the UN and EU showed their extreme concerns and asked for negotiations and diplomatic channels to cool down tension; China and Turkey also offered to mediate to bring normalcy.
Observers and experts were amazed to see this unfortunate development in the region, which was already engulfed in many crises; they tried to find out the causes/reasons and fallouts of this unseen happening. On the part of Iran, had many issues prompting this action. Domestically, the Iranian security apparatus was under stress due to its inaction against the US/Israeli attacks on its installations in Syria and Iraq, and also the suicide/terrorist attacks in Kirman on the tomb of Gen. Qasim Suleimani.
In the regional context, the Iranian rhetoric against Israeli genocide in Gaza and Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and Houthis were not enough for the rightwing political faction in Iran. Also, the Iranian intelligence/information of Jaish-e-Adal hideouts/camps in Pakistani Balochistan, who regularly carried out attacks on targets inside Iran.
Therefore, it became essential for Iran to carry out counterattacks to meet multiple objectives; the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) or Pasdarans launched attacks against the US/Israeli targets in Iraq and Syria, and subsequently in Pakistan. Even though the Iranian high command of its regular armed forces and IRGC is the same the later often carry out its missions such as Gen. Qasim Suleimani’s Qudos Brigade operating in four Arab countries and the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran in January 2020.
For Pakistan, the Iranian attack had undermined its sovereignty and called into question the capability to secure its territory and restore credibility.
Also, Pakistan had full information on BLA terrorist camps inside the Iranian territory and past experiences of Indian RAW agent Kulbhushan Jadhav and wanted Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor to come out into Pakistan from Iran. Therefore, within hours of Iranian strikes, Pakistan struck back with ‘highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes’ (MOFA, January 17, 2024) against the BLA targets successfully.
It is important to highlight that in the past, Pakistan did the same when its sovereignty was challenged such as the US/NATO Salala check-post attack in November 2011, and the Indian air-force intrusion into Pakistani territory in February 2021. Pakistan is the biggest victim of terrorism and it has an unflinching resolve to root out terrorism, and not let its territory be used by terrorists against any country. In the past, Pakistan had cooperated with Iran in providing information against anti-Iranian elements and handing-over of Jundullah leader, Abdolmalek Regi to Iran in 2010.
Importantly, Pakistan and Iran are interwoven in history, culture, language, and religion, and they are interdependent in trade and economics. The entire Makaran division of Balochistan province bordering Iran has mutual trade links, and huge illegal Iranian oil is the livelihood of a vast majority of the people. Iran provides 200MW of electricity to Balochistan and Pakistan’s emerging strategic seaport Gwadar depends on Iranian supplies. Likewise, the multi-billion Sino-Iran trade agreement and the ambitious Chinese Built and Road Initiative (BRI) have to pass through Balochistan. Therefore, China was the first country to offer mediation to resolve the border issue amicably.
Since China has become a reliable power broker in the region, its clout is visibly seen paying dividends for regional peace and stability.
Pakistan and Iran have a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) of 2004 and chalked out a five-year trade cooperation plan for 2023-28 to increase bilateral trade to five billion dollars, besides a MoU to enhance collaboration in maritime security and counter-terrorism measures of 2023 (Radio Pakistan, June 20, 2023). Also, ‘the top military leadership of both Iran and Pakistan agreed to step up cooperation and take effective actions against the separatist militants along their porous border’ (Associate Press, July 17, 2023). Both Pakistan and Iran have suffered due to terrorism in the region and they have many common security concerns.
Therefore, in the geopolitical realm, neighbors cannot be changed but better relations can create mutual interdependence in the political, economic, and security spheres. Based on their historical ties and given the vast convergence in Pakistan-Iran relations, the future of bilateral relations is promising. There is a need to effectively enhance security, intelligence, and counter-terrorism cooperation and implement the existing agreements for better understanding to create regional peace and stability.
Pakistan and Iran are important actors in many regional and trans-regional multilateral forums.
Their approach towards many regional security issues is the same; their joint military and strategic weight is significant for the Muslim world. In this context, mutual understanding and cooperation are paramount for a united stand in the region and beyond.
The Author is a Professor of International Relations and presently working as a Member Board of Directors, at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) Colombo-Sri Lanka. He has served as Dean Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wah, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and Director of School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR), Quaid-i-Azam University. He has over 30 years of teaching, research, and administrative experience. He Tweets @Sheeshgar1