Tensions between regional rivals Iran and Pakistan escalated dangerously this week, with both sides launching missile and air strikes against the other after Iran initially targeted militants inside Pakistan. The strikes threaten to draw more countries into the conflict and further destabilize the region.
Back and Forth Strikes Raise Fear of Wider Conflict
On January 17th, Iran fired missiles across the countries’ shared border into Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, reportedly targeting a base belonging to the ethnic Baloch separatist group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice). Iran accused the militants, who have carried out attacks inside Iran in the past, of harboring terrorists and threatened further action.
The rare Iranian strike marked a serious escalation between the two nations and drew widespread condemnation from Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan denounced it as “an act of terrorism” that killed two children and was a violation of international law.
In retaliation, Pakistan’s air force conducted strikes the next day against camps belonging to the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) inside Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province, killing at least 9 militants. Pakistan warned Iran that it would meet any further aggression in kind.
Both sides have since moved to deescalate tensions, with Iran’s foreign minister due to visit Pakistan next week. But the tit-for-tat strikes have raised regional tensions and stir fears of the conflict widening.
Who Are the Baloch Militant Groups?
The Baloch ethnic group straddles the Iran-Pakistan border, with many calling for independence from both countries in order to form their own state. Baloch separatists have fought low-level insurgencies against Islamabad and Tehran for decades.
Jaish al-Adl is a Sunni extremist group fighting Iran’s Shia government that has claimed several attacks on Iranian security forces in recent years, including a 2019 suicide bombing that killed 27 Revolutionary Guard members.
The BLF is a secular separatist militia that frequently targets Chinese development projects and Pakistani security forces. Both groups maintain cross-border sanctuaries and have exploited animosity between Iran and Pakistan to operate more freely.
Analysts say that emboldened Baloch militants taking advantage of tensions between Iran and Pakistan likely triggered Tehran’s initial strike. Continued militant activity could spark more reprisals.
Could the Crisis Widen Further?
There are concerns that the strikes could drag additional countries into the fray and further destabilize the region:
- Saudi Arabia has funded Baloch rebels in the past as part of its regional struggle with Iran. Riyadh may clandestinely support Pakistan or Baloch groups.
- India has its own conflicts with Pakistan and strategic interests in Balochistan. New Delhi is monitoring events closely but unlikely to get directly involved.
- The United States termed the strikes “an ominous escalation” that endangers regional stability. While urging restraint, any conflict would strain Washington’s relations with Tehran.
- China has major infrastructure investments in Pakistan that could be threatened and would likely come to Islamabad’s defense.
Most observers expect Pakistan and Iran will seek to avoid further escalation, as they have limited appetite for a wider conflict. But nationalist sentiments run high on both sides regarding Balochistan, risking more unilateral action absent a diplomatic solution.
Roots of Longstanding Enmity
While the strikes relate directly to Baloch militancy, they come against the wider backdrop of a complex and often adversarial relationship between Iran and Pakistan:
|Border and Militancy Issues
|Pakistan and Iran share a porous ~600 mile border that militants exploiting, with each accusing the other of harboring exiled dissidents. Border security, refugees, and drug trafficking are persistent issues.
|Iran seeks to counter Saudi influence, while Pakistan maintains close ties to Gulf states. Pakistan resents Iranian support for militants on its soil. Competition for regional connectivity projects also factor.
|Pakistan aligned with Saudi Wahhabism contrasts Iran’s Shia theocracy. Sectarian attacks in Pakistan have stoked tensions.
|Energy and Trade
|Trade volume between the two remains modest at around $1 billion annually, despite talk of oil pipelines. Security and political issues obstruct closer economic ties.
These long-festering strains vaccilate between periods of tense relations and pragmatic cooperation on issues like refugees and cross-border terror. The latest crisis threatens to upend recent diplomatic progress in managing bilateral challenges.
What Comes Next?
In the wake of the air strikes, both countries continue posturing but have exercised some restraint. Pakistan’s foreign office says it “does not seek further escalation” but vowed to hit back harder if Iran conducts further aggression. Iranian President Raisi also warned Pakistan that Tehran would “not hesitate to strike the safe havens of terrorists” if militants continue attacks inside Iran.
However, Iran’s foreign minister will visit Islamabad next week in a bid to smooth over relations, signaling both sides wish to avoid an uncontrolled escalation like that between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan in 2019. Independent observers characterize the rapid deescalation as the “best realistic outcome” considering the tensions involved on both sides of the border.
Pakistan additionally faces economic and political turmoil that leaves it little appetite for conflict, while Iran remains constrained by sanctions. Yet nationalistic passions surrounding Balochistan run high in both countries, risking miscalculation. Ultimately resolving complex border issues and aligning a common approach to counterterrorism represent the only path to lasting stability.
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