Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Pakistan on Monday in an effort to ease recent tensions after the two countries exchanged missile strikes along their border. The high-profile diplomatic visit capped weeks of behind-the-scenes talks aimed at restoring ties.
Missile Strikes Heightened Tensions
Tensions escalated sharply this month when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps fired missiles into Pakistan’s Balochistan province on January 15th, killing one Pakistani soldier. Pakistan retaliated with missiles strikes inside Iran’s borders on January 20th.
While cross-border attacks are not uncommon along the volatile Iran-Pakistan border, the missile strikes were a serious escalation. They highlighted how nominal allies can quickly turn hostile when core security interests diverge.
Diplomatic Fallout from Strikes
In the aftermath of the strikes, Pakistan and Iran withdrew their ambassadors and issued strongly worded condemnations. According to Reuters, Pakistan’s National Security Committee vowed to “respond firmly and effectively to any and all threats to our security.”
Analysts warned the strikes could trigger a dangerous escalatory spiral between the two neighbors. However, behind the scenes, quiet diplomacy was already underway to pull back from the brink.
Seeking to Repair Ties
Amir-Abdollahian’s visit signals both countries want to repair ties damaged by the rare public skirmish. Speaking at a joint press conference with his Pakistani counterpart, the foreign minister said “Iran and Pakistan have very close ties,” stressing Tehran did not want conflict.
While major outstanding issues remain, the cordial tone of the visit and pledge for more cooperation point to a diplomatic thaw. Crucially, Pakistan agreed to revive a joint border security mechanism to boost coordination.
China’s Failed Mediation Effort
Notably absent from the talks was China, which had offered to mediate between Tehran and Islamabad but was rebuffed. Pakistan likely avoided third-party mediation to underscore bilateral resolution. Iran possibly declined Chinese help to avoid signaling vulnerability.
Whatever the case, the snub highlights limitations of China’s regional sway despite ambitious infrastructure plans linking Pakistan and Iran. Ultimately, the two neighbors chose to handle their affairs directly.
Ongoing Border Security Threats
|Key Border Security Threats
|Pakistan-based Baloch and Sunni militant groups, Iran-based Kurdish separatists
|Transnational criminal groups exploiting porous border
|Transnational human smuggling networks
While seeking to deescalate tensions, Iran and Pakistan did not shy away from thorny security issues plaguing border areas during talks. Abdollahian accused “terrorist groups” in Pakistan of staging attacks in Iran using advanced weapons supplied by “third parties.”
Analysts say Abdollahian’s charge likely refers to Iranian exile groups and Baloch insurgents allegedly backed by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US. Meanwhile, Pakistan worries Iran offers sanctuaries to Baloch separatists attacking its troops.
Human trafficking and drug smuggling also remain pressing issues, exploited by organized criminal elements on both sides. Joint border controls have repeatedly struggled to curb the illicit economy fueling regional instability.
While tensions have eased for now, the outlook remains uncertain given clashing strategic interests between Iran and Pakistan. Islamabad maintains close partnership with Tehran’s top rivals – Saudi Arabia and the US – which frequently angers Iranian leaders.
Pakistan also walks a fine line balancing ties to Iran and the Gulf States who are on opposing sides of regional power struggles. Furthermore, attacks by Baloch insurgents show no signs of abating, promising future bilateral border tensions.
Therefore, while the diplomatic thaw has pulled Pakistan and Iran back from the precipice, significant security threats along their border will continue challenging sensitive bilateral ties. Whether revival of joint border coordination mechanisms can effectively tackle these threats remains an open question.
Sustained diplomatic engagement and grafting common interests around economic connectivity may offer a path towards more stability. China clearly hopes its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects linking Tehran to Gwadar port can spur regional integration. But security and political complexities continue blocking win-win breakthroughs.
For now, the foreign minister’s visit has eased the risk of dangerous escalation between Iran and Pakistan. Yet trouble may still be brewing along their restive border regions fueling future crises.
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