Pakistan hit back against ‘unacceptable’ Iran air attacks? Pakistan recalls Ambassador to Iran, bars Tehran envoy from returning after attack. Pakistan Air Force carried out precise retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian soil on 18 January 2024 claiming it was targeting terror groups across its southwestern border two days after Iran struck unprovoked bombing.
What it claimed were militant bases in Pakistan triggered a severe diplomatic row between the neighboring countries that is likely to escalate further in the coming days ahead. The move followed Iran’s strikes against Jaish al-Adl.
The Pakistani strike mission was named “Marg Bar Sarmachar” The Persian phrase “Marg Bar” translates to “death to” and the Baluchi word Sarmachar which means “guerillas”. In Iran, the phrase “Marg Bar” is widely used to target both America and Israel. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry called the military action a “series of highly coordinated and targeted military strikes against terrorist hideouts in Siestan-o-Baluchistan province of Iran.”
According to the state-controlled Iranian News Agency, three women and four children were killed by the strikes. The precision strikes were carried out using killer drones, rockets, munitions, and stand-off weapons. Maximum care was taken to avoid collateral damage. Pakistan hit seven locations of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) terror groups.
The statement said Islamabad has constantly raised serious concern and unease with Tehran about “safe havens and sanctuaries enjoyed by Pakistani origin terrorists on the ungoverned spaces inside Iran,” for several years.
The Ministry said Iran’s lack of action against sanctuaries of these militant groups who “continued to spill the blood of innocent Pakistanis with impunity” led to strikes and were based on intelligence reports about looming “large-scale terrorist activities” these factions were planning. The statement said Pakistan fully respected Iran’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
In an attempt to mitigate pushback from Tehran the Pakistan Foreign Ministry’s statement adds, “Iran is a brotherly country and the people of Pakistan have great respect and affection for the Iranian people. We have always emphasized dialogue and cooperation in confronting common challenges.”
Iran launched attacks targeting what it described as bases for the militant group Jaish al-Adl in the border town of Panjgur region in southwest Balochistan province prompting strong condemnation of the unprovoked breach of its airspace by Iran saying that the strike inside Pakistani territory killed two children and injured three girls.
“This violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is completely unacceptable and can have serious consequences,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued on Tuesday night of 16 January 2024. “Pakistan has always said terrorism is a common threat to all countries that require coordinated action,” the statement said. Pakistan also said it has summoned Tehran’s Charge d’ affairs (Cd’a) in Islamabad to protest the unprovoked violation of its airspace adding that such strikes do not conform to “good neighborly relations”.
The countries share a roughly 900km long border in Pakistan’s southwest and Iran’s southeast. They have accused each other of sheltering armed groups.
Tuesday’s strike on Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province imperiled cordial relations between the two neighbors. In a subsequent briefing on 17 January 2024, Foreign Office (FO) spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said “unprovoked and blatant breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty by Iran” was a violation of international law and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
“Pakistan reserves the right to respond to this illegal act and the responsibility for the consequences will lie squarely with Iran,” Baloch said. The spokesperson also announced on 17 January 2024 that Islamabad is recalling Mudassir Tipu, the country’s Ambassador to Iran over the strikes. She added that Pakistan asked the Iranian Ambassador Reza Amiri Moghadam, who was visiting Tehran when the attack took place, not to return. Islamabad had decided to suspend all high-level visits, she added.
Meanwhile, Tehran’s top diplomat has said that his country’s armed forces targeted an “Iranian terrorist group” in Pakistan on 16 January 2024. “On Pakistan, none of the nationals of the brotherly country were targeted by Iranian missiles and drones,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. “The so-called Jaish al-Adl group, which is an Iranian terrorist group, was targeted,” he added.
Separately, China has urged Pakistan and Iran to exercise “restraint” following the incident. Speaking at a briefing on 17 January 2024, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson said: “We call on both sides to exercise restraint, avoid actions that would lead to an escalation of tension, and work together to maintain peace and stability.” “We consider both Iran and Pakistan as close neighbors and major Islamic countries,” she added. Both Iran and Pakistan are close partners of Beijing and members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The incident also triggered condemnations from across Pakistan. In a post on social media platform X, caretaker Balochistan Information Minister Jan Achakzai expressed disappointment. Former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said he was “shocked at the Iranian breach of Pakistani sovereignty”. Former Federal Minister Sherry Rehman termed the incident “unacceptable and condemnable”.
The attack also threatened to further ignite violence in the region unsettled by Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Jaish al-Adl has previously mounted attacks on Iranian security forces in the border area. Tuesday’s attack in Balochistan came a day after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards attacked targets in Iraq and Syria with missiles.
Hours before Iranian bombings on Balochistan, Pakistani caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar had met Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amirabdollahian on the sidelines of the (WEF) in Davos.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani and his Iranian counterpart discussed the status of ties between Tehran and Islamabad. Amirabdollahian said that Iran cares much about Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He called the security of Pakistan the security of Iran and made it clear that the group calling itself Jaish ul-Adl is a terrorist entity that acts against the common security of the two countries.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani met with Iran’s special representative for Afghanistan affairs, Hassan Kazmi Qomi, in Islamabad earlier this week, where the two discussed the need for “enhanced coordination for regional stability. Ambassador Qomi also held extensive talks with his counterpart, Pakistan’s Special Representative on Afghanistan Asif Durrani on the situation in Afghanistan and the regional processes for peace and dialogue. The two countries also participated in a one-day naval exercise on January 16 in the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz.
Despite these recent engagements between the two countries clashes at the border areas have remained a regular feature. Jaish al-Adl was founded in 2012, and Iranian officials believe it largely operates in Pakistan. The group has claimed bombings and kidnapped members of Iran’s border police in the past. Tehran alleges that the group also has hideouts across the border in Pakistan.
Iran’s unilateral military actions were highly shocking because they took place in the background of a firm relationship with a neighbor that shares a long border with Pakistan. These were unreasonable, illegal, and escalatory. It seems whoever authorized it had not thought it through and planned it. Pakistan has always conveyed its concerns about terrorist hideouts in Iran.
However, Pakistan preferred to rely on diplomatic solutions and create mechanisms where both countries could address concerns within the framework of international law and the UN charter. This region cannot afford another escalation. Pakistan’s action of today shows that it will never choose to escalate but has both the will and the ability to respond to outside threats and any attack on its sovereignty.
Undoubtedly one of the major irritants standing in the way of improved bilateral relations is the presence of armed actors active along the common border of both countries. These include criminals such as smugglers drug smugglers as well as armed militants subscribing to both separatist and extremist ideologies. Deadly confrontations between these elements and security forces are common, which often result in the killing of both Pakistani and Iranian personnel.
Both countries have long regarded each other with distrust over militant attacks. Each state also faces its domestic political pressures and the strikes may in part be in response to that.
A further counterattack is possible from the Iranian side. The Pakistani government would weigh any possible retaliation as the national elections are just next month. Moreover, Pakistan would be wary of getting pulled into a wider conflict due to severe flare-ups and unrest in the Middle East. What Pakistan might instead do is strengthen ties with Iran, GCC, and other friends.
Through intelligence sharing and better coordination, the security situation in the border areas can be improved, so that harmful actors are not able to use either country’s territory to trouble the other.
Militant groups and proxies supported by hostile states and actors will continue to vitiate the atmosphere, which is why the leaders of both countries must redouble their efforts to pacify the situation. Alongside improving the security in the border areas, promoting economic activity will also be helpful for the underdeveloped parts of both Sistan-Baluchestan and Balochistan. Through increased trade and people-to-people contacts, Pakistan-Iran relations can be deepened, provided that both states jointly deal with the problem of terrorism in the region.
Iran should have responded by de-escalation. Striking back on the brotherly country of Iran is not an easy politico-military decision to make for Pakistan. But the responsibility to avoid further escalation lies now on Iran. Let us behave responsibly and take the offer of negotiations seriously. Muslim Ummah faces other grave issues and we should not drag ourselves in confrontations.
The author has been a Foreign Service Officer with a diplomatic career of around 30 years, During which he held several important positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamabad, and Pakistan Missions abroad.
Ambassador Haider joined the Foreign Services of Pakistan in 1992 and his postings abroad include that of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Seoul (RoK), Pyongyang (DPRK), Jakarta (Indonesia), and Athens (Hellenic Republic).
His last assignment abroad was in the State of Kuwait as Ambassador from 2019 to 2022 while in the Ministry he served last as an Additional Secretary. Earlier, he worked in various Divisions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dealing with bilateral and multilateral affairs as Director General, Director, Deputy, and Assistant Director. He tweets @SajjadDiplomat