Photo’s Source: Shirinkin Yevgeny/Shutterstock; Pakistan and Iran flags
The recent Iranian drone and missile attack in Pakistani Baluchistan has reignited tensions that have further worsened the ties between the two governments. The reciprocal retaliation between a nuclear-armed nation and another engaged in the development of warheads is a very significant intensification of tensions between these two neighboring countries that have historically had strained ties.
Iran conducted airstrikes on Pakistan’s Balochistan area on January 16, 2024, with the stated objective of targeting the strongholds of Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni separatist organization responsible for carrying out assaults inside Iran. The airstrikes resulted in the deaths of two children and caused injuries to several individuals in Pakistan. The Pakistani government denounced the attack as a breach of its sovereignty. Pakistan responded on Thursday, January 18, 2024, by conducting airstrikes on Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan region. The stated objective was to bomb the training camps of Baluch terrorists who had been responsible for attacking Pakistani security personnel and government officials. The airstrikes resulted in the deaths of nine individuals, including four children, three women, and two men, all of whom were non-Iranian nationals. Iran condemned the assault, labeling it as an act of aggression.
The Baloch territory, located at the intersection of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, has been a persistent cause of instability and violence for many years. The Baloch people harbor strong resentment at being governed by both Islamabad and Tehran and aim for self-governance or independence. The region also has several terrorist factions, some of whom maintain affiliations with regional or global entities, such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or Islamic State. Nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that the conflict encompasses not just the Shia-Sunni schism, but also geopolitical, economic, security, and identity factors. However, a more intricate storyline emerges among the noise of military exercises and diplomatic criticisms. This conflict encompasses both internal strife and exterior pressures. Both Iran and Pakistan are now facing significant challenges. Iran is dealing with the impact of sanctions and internal challenges while aiming to strengthen its authority and demonstrate its might. On the other hand, Pakistan is confronting internal insurgencies and economic difficulties, while endeavoring to establish its strategic importance. Intense competition among major powers adds more complexity to the situation.
The action followed Iranian airstrikes that targeted the suspected strongholds of a terrorist organization in the volatile Pakistani region of Balochistan. The Iranian assault caused significant disruption in the volatile area, prompting further concern over stability in the period leading up to Pakistan’s pivotal national elections. The current intensification of conflict between Iran and Pakistan coincides with a period of heightened tensions across the Middle East and beyond. These tensions have been fueled by the ongoing war in Gaza, the nuclear negotiations between Iran and global powers. The occurrences arise at a very delicate period for Pakistan, as the country is set to conduct postponed national elections shortly. Additionally, this phenomenon occurs when Iranian-supported factions participate in clashes between Israel and the Red Sea, causing widespread concern about the possibility of a more extensive regional war. In addition, Pakistan often accuses Iran of sheltering Pakistani separatist organizations, such as the Baloch Liberation Army and Baloch Liberation Front. These groups specifically want to attack Pakistani military troops and China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan, further adding complexity to the situation.
The Iranian bombing in Pakistan, along with its operations in Iraq and Syria earlier in the week, were strongly criticized by the US State Department. The Department called for a peaceful settlement to the growing tensions in the area. Likewise, Russia’s foreign ministry urged Iran and Pakistan to exercise utmost self-control and resolve their disagreements via diplomatic means, cautioning that failure to do so might inadvertently serve the interests. China’s influence in the Middle East is expanding which has bolstered its collaboration with Iran, particularly via the 25-year cooperation pact, including diverse domains such as energy, infrastructure, commerce, and security, to counterbalance US interests. China has successfully maintained a favorable equilibrium with Pakistan, which is crucial for the success of its Belt and Road Initiative. In response to the abrupt increase in tension, China used its influence and diplomatic skills to facilitate negotiations between the opposing sides, aiming to avert any further escalation and maintain calm in the area.
The alliance between Iran, Russia and China serves as a counterweight to Pakistan’s strong partnership with the United States and Saudi Arabia, resulting in a complicated geopolitical landscape in the region. The abrupt intensification of this conflict between Iran and Pakistan has substantial regional implications, potentially affecting the equilibrium of power, the security landscape, and the chances for peace in the Middle East and beyond. Certain powers may see the dispute as a chance to enhance their influence and pursue their goals, while others may view it as a potential danger to their security and stability. Israel may attempt to use the situation to weaken Iran’s nuclear program and regional aspirations. The war may also have an impact on regional alliances and rivalries, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League.
The geopolitical situation is further complicated by the triangle-shaped ties between Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Iran is part of the Axis of Resistance, a coalition that includes Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis. This coalition is in opposition to the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan maintains alliances with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates while exercising caution towards India, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. Iran and Pakistan possess conflicting interests and exert influence in Afghanistan, where they have backed different factions and parties over the years. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have maintained strong bilateral ties. Pakistan finds itself in a difficult position as it tries to retain strong relations with Saudi Arabia while avoiding any disruption to its relationship with Iran.
Nevertheless, the Iranian ballistic missile attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan underscore Iran’s capacity to extend its influence beyond its territory and may have substantial consequences for the security of the region. A range of variables, including domestic political dynamics, the characteristics of the strikes, and the belief that its ability to deter had been compromised, has shaped the Pakistani reaction to the Iranian attacks. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s unwavering will to safeguard and uphold its national security from any dangers is evident in its reaction.
Due to the shared border resulting in security concerns, Pakistan and Iran’s ties are significantly affected by its instability. Exercising skillful diplomacy and making informed choices are crucial for Iran and Pakistan to effectively manage this intricate relationship and avoid escalating tensions that might jeopardize regional security.
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About the author:
Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD). She is a research analyst in security studies. She obtained her Master's and Bachelor's in International Relations from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She can be reached at email@example.com.