The relationship between Pakistan and Iran has its origins in their shared religious, historical, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. However, Pakistan and Iran have had a complex relationship over the years, influenced by factors such as security concerns, geopolitical interests, and changes in political identities. Before the Islamic revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the two countries enjoyed a longstanding diplomatic relationship. However, over time, their relationship has been marred by regional disparities, foreign involvement in warfare, cross-border terrorism, sectarianism, and diverging economic interests.

The relationship between Pakistan and Iran has suffered another setback due to recent cross-border attacks on January 16, 2024.

As a result, distrust, rivalry, and antagonism now characterize their relationship. Before Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, there was a sense of trust between the decision-making groups and state establishments of both nations. The two countries’ ties flourished under Reza Shah Pehlavi’s government in Iran. Iran was the first country to recognize Pakistan officially. Both countries shared a common foreign and security policy outlook as they remained aligned with the US. Their relations were further solidified by their membership in the Baghdad Pact and the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) platform with Turkey.

Additionally, Iran firmly backed Pakistan in both of its wars with India. However, a shift was experienced in Pak-Iran friendly relations post-1979. Both countries took different paths toward Islamization, and as a result, their divergent ideologies shaped their respective political perspectives. There was a shift in Iranian foreign policy, and its pivot became exporting the revolution, which posed serious challenges to Iran’s Persian Gulf Arab neighbors. Pakistan, however, had strategic ties to these Arab nations, particularly concerning Afghanistan. Thus, their bilateral relations suffered as a result of both countries’ support of opposing groups and division over the Afghan crisis.

Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran’s involvement with India posed challenges for the Pak-Iran bilateral relationship. Security institutions in Pakistan suspected Iran of providing a gateway to India, allowing them to conduct anti-Pakistan actions in Pakistan. The concerns were justified when Indian intelligence agent Kulbhushan Yadav was arrested, crossing into Pakistan from Iran. He not only confirmed his participation in terrorist acts and his ties to Baloch rebel organizations but also revealed that he operated his network out of the Iranian city of Chahbahar. Therefore, the suspected existence of Indian intelligence agents in Iran and their hostile actions towards Pakistan, which frequently lead to cross-border assaults on security forces in Balochistan Province, negatively affect bilateral relations.

One of the primary points of dispute between Iran and Pakistan remains the state of law and order on their shared border. The actions of Baloch militants, from either side, have impacted security conditions in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province and Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Although cross-border tensions between the two countries are not unusual, the recent propensity to strike areas across the border without prior warning is a new development.

As a result of these strikes, the complex relationship between the two countries has reached a critical point, exacerbating cross-border tensions.

Iran claimed to have struck two strongholds of the anti-Iran rebel organization Jaish al-Adl as it conducted missile attacks into Pakistan’s Balochistan province on January 16, 2024. Pakistan, however, claimed that the Iranian airstrikes had claimed the lives of two children in the southern region of Balochistan. Iran’s announcement of conducting military strikes led to Pakistan recalling its ambassador from Tehran to express disapproval of Iran’s violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Furthermore, following the attack, on January 18, 2024, Pakistan responded by striking back with missiles and fighter jets in the Sistan-Baluchistan province of Iran. It claimed that hideouts of anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, Baloch Liberation Army and the Balochistan Liberation Front, operating from Iranian territory were targeted. According to Iran, however, the Pakistani strikes claimed the lives of four women and three children.

Pakistan, however, claimed that it did not wish to intensify tensions. On January 19, Pakistan’s military and political authorities took steps to reduce hostilities with Iran. In a phone conversation between their foreign ministries, Pakistan stated that it was eager to cooperate with Iran on “all issues”. The outcome of the meeting was that both nations would be able to resolve minor issues amicably through communication and diplomacy and open the door to further strengthening their historic relations.

Pakistan is willing to collaborate with Iran on any matter as long as there is a “spirit of mutual trust”, according to Foreign Minister Jilani. He emphasized the necessity of enhanced collaboration regarding security matters.

The cross-border strikes between Pakistan and Iran created an alarming situation, especially at a time when the world is embroiled in regional conflicts. In light of its current domestic political and economic difficulties, Pakistan is unable to deal with another hostile neighbor. Despite Pakistan’s effort to ease tensions with Iran, it is important to note any future Iranian threats or violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty will be met with strong consequences. Both countries have had a tumultuous relationship and the recent event has been a turning point in the history of Pak-Iran relations. Therefore, enhancing ongoing bilateral political and security discussions is the only path ahead for both parties to comprehend and resolve their respective security concerns.

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