On January 15, 2024, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards initiated a missile attack on a purported Mossad spy base in northern Iraq and targeted “anti-Iran terror groups” in Syria, intensifying ongoing hostilities and escalating the risk of a wider regional conflict. Subsequently, Iran acknowledged launching a missile and drone assault on western Pakistan on January 16, claiming it was aimed at the militant group Jaish al-Adli, characterized as an “Iranian terrorist group” in Pakistan by Iran’s foreign minister. In response, Pakistan carried out what it termed “highly coordinated” military strikes against Iran, reciprocating within a little over 24 hours. The exchange of attacks heightened tensions between the two nations and raised concerns about the potential for a more extensive conflict. By the morning of January 18, 2024, Pakistan, as per its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, conducted an “intelligence-based operation” against armed group hideouts in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province.
The shared border between Pakistan and Iran spans approximately 900 kilometers (560 miles), with Pakistan’s Balochistan province on one side and Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province on the other. Both countries have a history of combating militants in the volatile Baloch region along the border. Despite having a common separatist enemy, it is uncommon for either side to launch attacks on militants within each other’s territory. The recent reciprocal air strikes have taken place amid heightened tensions in the Middle East, where various crises, such as Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza and Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, as well as the U.S. and UK involvement against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, contribute to the complex regional landscape. It’s noteworthy that Pakistan and Iran have long grappled with separatist challenges along their respective borders.
Frequent and deadly clashes have been a recurring issue along the volatile border over the years. In a recent incident, Iran accused Jaish al-Adl militants of attacking a police station in Sistan and Baluchestan, resulting in the deaths of 11 Iranian police officers, as reported by Tasnim. What is particularly uncommon, however, is the readiness of both sides to target locations across these borders without prior notification. This unfolding scenario is set against the backdrop of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, causing ripple effects throughout the region. Experts suggest that the broader regional conflict may have empowered Iran to take a more assertive stance in targeting locations beyond its borders, especially as the United States treads carefully between de-escalating tensions and demonstrating military strength to dissuade further actions by Iran.
In contrast to nations grappling with conflict like Yemen and Syria, Iran’s influential standing in the Middle East positions it to benefit from regional instability and capitalize on emerging power vacuums. Current Iranian activities align with several key objectives, notably the empowerment of Palestinians and countering Israel’s influence in the Middle East.
The Baloch people, residing at the crossroads of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, have historically demonstrated a strong desire for independence, harboring resentment towards both Islamabad and Tehran. Insurgencies have persisted in the porous border region for decades. Despite the area’s abundance of natural resources, Baloch separatists argue that their communities, among the poorest in the region, have not benefited significantly from the wealth generated. Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province in terms of area, has experienced a series of deadly attacks fueled by a prolonged insurgency. Separatists in the region seek independence, expressing dissatisfaction with what they perceive as the state’s monopolization and exploitation of the area’s mineral wealth. It has also fueled the situation since there were tensions already in the air and the subsequent incidents also reciprocate that.
Iran has confronted prolonged insurgencies from its Kurdish, Arab, and Baloch minorities. Jaish al-Adl represents just one among numerous separatist groups operating within Iran. Originally part of the larger Sunni militant organization Jundallah, Jaish al-Adl splintered after its leader’s execution by Iran in 2010, as reported by the US government’s National Counterterrorism Center. Designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Department, Jaish al-Adl frequently targets Iranian security personnel, government officials, and Shia civilians, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. In 2015, the group claimed responsibility for an attack that resulted in the death of eight Iranian border guards, with militants allegedly crossing into Iran from Pakistan. Additionally, in 2019, Jaish al-Adl asserted responsibility for a suicide bombing on a bus carrying Iranian military members, causing at least 23 casualties in Sistan-Baluchestan. On January 17, 2024, a day after Iran’s strikes on Pakistan, Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for an attack on an Iranian military vehicle in Sistan and Baluchestan.
The implications will not be limited to the region only.
Iran’s actions on Tuesday led to a diplomatic dispute, prompting Pakistan to recall its ambassador from Iran and halt all high-level visits from its neighboring country. Following Pakistan’s counterstrikes, Iran, on January 18, 2024, requested an immediate explanation from its neighbor, as reported by Tasmin. Regional countries have also weighed in on the matter, with India expressing “zero tolerance towards terrorism” and framing the incident as a bilateral issue between Iran and Pakistan. China has urged both nations to exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions further. On January 17, 2024, US State Department spokesperson Matt Miller stated that Washington is actively working to prevent the Middle East from descending into a full-scale conflict. He highlighted Iran’s violation of the sovereign borders of three neighboring countries, including Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. When asked about the potential for Pakistan, a longstanding US ally, to retaliate against Iran, Miller expressed the hope for a peaceful resolution. Pakistan’s subsequent military strike on Iranian territory indicates a decision to respond with more than just diplomatic measures.
The prospect of either Iran or Pakistan plunging into extensive hostilities over the separatist groups, viewed as mutual enemies, remains uncertain. Both nations released statements following their individual strikes that suggested a reluctance to escalate tensions. Pakistan’s foreign ministry referred to Iran as a “brotherly country” and stressed the importance of “finding joint solutions.” Similarly, Iran’s foreign minister previously characterized Pakistan as a “friendly country” and asserted that their strikes were proportional, specifically targeting militants. These statements from both sides indicate a shared inclination to avoid further escalation and seek amicable resolutions.
The United States is poised to enhance its support for Israel, reaffirming its commitment to the region. Similarly, India is steadfast in maintaining a clear stance, upholding its previous position of zero tolerance towards certain actions. The nuanced challenge lies ahead for China, given its positive relations with both Iran and Pakistan, marked by significant investments in both nations. China is also positioning itself as a mediator, a role highlighted by its involvement in the Saudi-Iran reconciliation.
Furthermore, the power vacuum ensuing from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has witnessed a surge in militant activities. The ongoing tensions in the region are likely to exacerbate this situation, providing a conducive environment for the further proliferation of militancy. The geopolitical dynamics involving key players such as the USA, India, and China will play a crucial role in shaping the trajectory of events and influencing the broader regional landscape.
The region is inherently susceptible to religious tension, primarily stemming from the historical divide between the Shiite and Sunni communities. This longstanding sectarian rift has been a recurring source of conflict, creating a volatile backdrop for geopolitical events. The recent border crisis between Iran and Pakistan has the potential to exacerbate these religious tensions, as both nations have significant populations adhering to different branches of Islam.
Given the predominantly Shiite character of Iran and the Sunni majority in Pakistan, the crisis could amplify existing religious fault lines. Sectarian sentiments may intensify, leading to increased polarization within communities and heightening the risk of communal strife. The complex interplay between religious affiliations, geopolitical dynamics, and historical grievances underscores the need for nuanced diplomacy and regional cooperation to mitigate the risk of escalating religious tensions.
In addition, external actors with vested interests may exploit these sectarian faultlines to further their agendas, exacerbating the potential for unrest. The international community must be vigilant in promoting dialogue, tolerance, and understanding to counteract the divisive forces that could exploit the religious dimensions of the situation. In this complex landscape, fostering religious harmony and addressing the root causes of sectarian tensions becomes crucial for promoting long-term stability and peaceful coexistence in the region.
– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).