The relations between Pakistan and Iran have taken a nosedive following one of the worst attacks on Iranian forces in a restive southeastern region connecting the neighboring Muslim countries.
Amid mounting pressure and talks of retaliation, Tehran has joined Islamabad’s archrival New Delhi in pledging close cooperation to “combat terrorism in the region.” While condemning the attack, Pakistan has called on Iran to share evidence.
Iran is pushing Pakistan to help combat the hard-line Sunni Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) group, which claimed responsibility for the February 13 attack.
At least 27 members of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were killed on the road between the cities of Zahedan and Khash in Sistan-Baluchistan Province when their bus was hit by a suicide car bomb.
On February 18, there were signs of an intense Iranian crackdown on Jaish al-Adl. The IRGC claimed to have destroyed the group’s hideouts and arrested three of its suspected members while seizing large amounts of weapons and explosives in Sistan-Baluchistan.
The raids followed warnings by top Iranian security officials.
“If, for whatever reason, the activities of the training centers and shelters of terrorist groups in Pakistan continue, Iran has the right to fight these centers based on the UN charter and will adopt related decisions if required,” Mohammad Bagheri, chief of general staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said on February 18.
Two days earlier, the IRGC’s top commander issued a similar warning.
“If Pakistan doesn't do its duties in fighting terrorism, Iran will fight the terrorist groups organized by regional and extra-regional intelligence services,” Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari told a mourning service for the slain IRGC members.
“The government of Pakistan knows the location of these elements that are dangerous to Islam and should be accountable for the crimes the terrorists have committed,” Jafari said. “It is expected that they do their duty with seriousness and not allow terrorists to use their border areas to organize anti-security moves against Iran.”
On February 17, Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Pakistani ambassador in Tehran and urged Islamabad to “seriously confront … the terrorist group active on its border” with Iran.
While hosting one of Iran’s arch-enemies, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Pakistan adopted a reconciliatory tone.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told journalists that he spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif on February 17 to tell him that “Pakistan was very upset about the tragic incident.”
Qureshi said Islamabad always condemns such activities and called on Tehran to share evidence about this attack. He hoped that as in the past Tehran and Islamabad can cooperate to resolve the current problems.
“Iran is our neighbor, and we wouldn’t want to cause problems for them,” he told reporters on February 18. “We respect their sovereignty and territorial integrity. I am sure they respect ours. If there are issues, we can discuss them.”
Since 2005, the emergence of Sunni militancy in Sistan-Baluchistan has plagued relations between predominantly Shi’ite Iran and Pakistan, where most Muslims follow the Sunni sect. Iranian leaders blame Pakistan and even threaten cross-border raids after every major terrorist attack inside Balochistan.
Following a major attack in October 2009 that killed 42, including senior commanders of the IRGC, Tehran accused Islamabad of harboring Jundullah leader Abdul Malik Rigi. Jundallah was a predecessor to Jaish al-Adl but dissolved after the 2010 arrest and hanging of Rigi.
In subsequent years, the attacks claimed by Jaish al-Adl ebbed and flowed. Many attacks involved the abduction or killing of Iranian border guards or attacks on Iranian forces in Sistan-Baluchistan.
Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni Deobandi group, claims to be fighting for the rights of Iran’s Sunni Baloch minority. They make up a majority of the residents of Sistan-Baluchistan but are a small minority in a country ruled by a Shi’ite clerical regime. Baloch nationalist exiles and Islamist groups claim they are discriminated against because they are an ethnic and sectarian minority.
The group appears to have ramped up its attacks in recent months. At least three police officers were wounded in a January 29 attack in Sistan-Baluchistan’s capital, Zahedan. A suicide bombing in the port city of Chabahar killed two police officers and wounded 42 people in December. In November, Pakistan claimed to have removed five of the 12 Iranian guards abducted the previous month near their shared border.
According to the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, Iranian forces carried out six cross-border attacks inside Pakistan in 2018 compared with 12 such attacks the previous year. In 2014, Abdul Rauf Rigi, the head of Jaih al-Nasr, a splinter or affiliate of Jaish al-Adl, was killed in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. The group blamed Iranian Intelligence agents for the murder.
According to the Associated Press, Pakistani security officials said a search operation was underway in remote part of Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan to arrest suspects linked to recent attacks in Pakistan and Iran. At least six Pakistani paramilitary troops were killed in two militant attacks in Balochistan’s Turbat and Loralai districts on February 17.
Despite its constant balancing act of preserving itself from the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, Islamabad finally appears to have moved too close to Riyadh to easily mend relations with Tehran.
“Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran has been a chief sponsor of terrorism,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir told journalists in Islamabad on February 18 as he rejected Tehran’s accusations of Riyadh’s involvement in the attack on the IRGC. “So the last country in the world to accuse others of supporting terrorism is Iran.”
Two days earlier, however, Iran indicated its willingness to join India in pressing Islamabad over the presence of terrorist groups on its soil. In one of the worst attacks on Indian security forces in decades, at least 41 Indian paramilitary police officers were killed in a suicide attack in the restive region of Kashmir on February 14.
“Enough is enough,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Argachi wrote on Twitter. “In my meeting with Sushma Swaraj the Indian FM, when she had a stopover in Tehran, we agreed on close cooperation to combat terrorism in the region!”