Turbulence in Pakistan-Iran Relations

By Asif Haroon Raja

Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi

When Iran was ruled by the Mosaddeq led regime, it was the first Muslim country to recognize Pakistan in 1947. After his ouster in a CIA-Mi-6 sponsored coup in 1953, as long as Reza Shah Pahlavi was ruling Iran, Pakistan’s southern backyard resting on the 1110 km long Arabian Sea coastline was safe and secure. Both were strategic partners. 19% Shias in Pakistan including the Hazara tribe living in Quetta were living in harmony with the people of Pakistan and there was no trace of Shia-Sunni tensions.

Pakistan under Field Marshal Ayub Khan had become the role model of the developing world due to its phenomenal economic growth. Pakistan-Iran-Turkey joint RCD project had bonded the three Muslim countries economically and culturally. Iran was on the side of Pakistan in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars. Iran provided much-needed attack helicopters to deal with the 1973 Baloch insurgency which raged till 1978.

The US Twin-Pillar Policy

Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) were also strategic partners and there was no ideological confrontation between the two States. The USA was behind their intimate cooperation since its twin-pillar policy to confront the communist threat to the Middle East and to safeguard its commercial interests hinged on mutual cooperation of Iran and KSA. The former was equipped and modernized to become the policeman of the Persian Gulf.

Coolness in Relations after Islamic Revolution in Iran

The idealistic equation between the two brotherly neighbors was disrupted after the deposition of Reza Pehlevi in the Imam Khomeini led Islamic revolution in March 1979. From that time onwards, Iranian warmth was overshadowed by coolness and trust replaced with distrust.

Reasons behind Discomfiture

Pakistan-Iran relations have been uneasy and discomforting despite the fact that Pakistan continued to extend support to Iran even when it was isolated by the world and put under heavy sanctions.

One reason behind this uneasiness was Iran’s desire to spread Shi’ism beyond its borders into Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Another irritant was Pakistan’s closeness with KSA. Since KSA espoused Wahhabism, it became Iran’s ideological rival.

The other reason for Iran’s frostiness with Pakistan was its intimacy with Sunni Afghan Mujahideen and Iran’s ideological confrontation with them during the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet forces. Pakistan, after supporting the resistance movement of the Mujahideen, was the first to recognize the Mullah Omar regime, which took over power in 1994 and established an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. Iran on the other hand supported the Afghan Northern Alliance (Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras) under Ahmed Shah Masood, housed and trained its armed forces. These conflicting choices further iced Pak-Iran relations.

Support for the Northern Alliance drew Iran closer to India and the former USSR and with the passage of time their cooperation deepened. Iran created IRGC in early 1980s under Gen Qassem Soleimani which became more powerful than Iranian armed forces and operated directly under the conservative President. The 1990s saw a surge of sectarianism in Pakistan. Iran supported groups Like Sipah Muhammadi and affiliated Shia militant groups which clashed with Sunni Sipah Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and others.

Punjab became the battleground of sectarian bloody clashes. Religious Ulemas, mosques and Imambargahs were targeted. Zairean from Pakistan proceeding to Qom city in Iran for pilgrimage were imparted military training and were used for the purposes of fomenting sectarianism and target killings in Quetta, Karachi and elsewhere. Recently, a big gang of extortionists was busted in Karachi which was supervised by Iran.

Jundullah/Jaish-ul Adl Groups

During the US imposed war on terror, a Sunni Iranian terrorist group Jundullah under Abdul Malik Regi was established in 2002, and it operated against Iran from interior Baluchistan. It was funded and equipped by the CIA operated Shamsi airbase.

Pakistan helped in the arrest of anti-Iran Abdul Malik Regi who was hanged to death, but it brought little change in Iran’s attitude towards Pakistan. Jundullah was changed to Jaish-ul Nasr under Malik’s brother Abdul Rauf Regi, which was later merged into Jaish-ul Adl in 2009. Jundullah and Jaish have been targeting Iran’s security forces in Siestan (Eastern Baluchistan).

Iran’s Perimeter of Security

In the wake of the American threat to the Khomeini’s Islamic regime, Iran felt the need to build a perimeter of security in the Middle East to keep the US away from the mainland. For that purpose, IRGC was created which initially formed a strategic alliance with the Assad regime in Syria, and thereafter created a militant force named Hezbollah in Lebanon as its proxy to keep Israel at bay. The Shia arc was expanded and strengthened after the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US-NATO forces in 2003. Hamas in Gaza, Houthis in Yemen in 2014, pro-Iran militant groups in Iraq were taken on board and equipped.

IRGC made use of Shia presence in Bahrain, KSA, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although IRGC was declared a rogue outfit by the US and the UN and was blacklisted in 2017, it has become a power to reckon with. It created Zainabyun and Ummayun militant groups formed by the Shias in Pakistan and Afghanistan for use in Iraq and Syria wars.

Iran’s Tilt towards India, Russia

From 1994 onwards, Iran gradually tilted towards India, Russia and China. In 2002, it signed a defence treaty with India, which included provision of military bases to India in case of Indo-Pak war, and intelligence sharing. It handed over Chahbahar port to India on lease for 100 years, and allowed India to deploy 10,000 soldiers in the port city. In 2015, the two countries signed a strategic partnership in which Afghanistan, ruled by Ashraf Ghani, was included.

Iran-India collusion

It is an established fact that RAW and Iran’s intelligence have been in collusion during the 20-year war on terror. RAW in sync with other intelligence agencies launched its main effort of covert war using Afghan soil and used Iranian soil for its auxiliary effort against Pakistan. Indian Embassies and Consulates in Afghanistan and Iran were used for the purpose of destabilizing and strategically encircling Pakistan.

Placement of RAW agent naval commander Kulbhushan Yadhav at Chahbahar in the guise of a businessman, under a fake Muslim name Mubarak Hussein and with a Irani passport underscored Iran’s role in facilitating cross border terrorism in Pakistan. Kulbhushan’s arrest in March 2014 and his disclosures revealed deep-rooted involvement of RAW in Pakistan. There was an upsurge of terrorism in Baluchistan, former FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after his arrest. India, Afghanistan, Iran and the USA blamed Pakistan and was roguishly declared a nursery of terrorism.

CPEC an Eyesore

CPEC and Gwadar Port in particular have become an eyesore for many including Iran. India is hell-bent to sabotage it, as was confessed by the arrested Kulbhushan. He revealed that RAW had established a network along Pakistan’s Makran Coast extending up to Karachi Sea Coast, which had remained active in destabilizing Baluchistan and Karachi. He being a navy officer was specifically mandated to carry out sabotage in Gwadar in order to disrupt CPEC.

Kulbhushan was using Chahbahar as his base of operation since 2003 and was supplying funds and arms to the MQM in Karachi, and BLA, BRA, BLF and Allah Nazar group in Baluchistan for conducting sabotage and subversion. Based on his tips, several RAW agents were arrested from Karachi and Baluchistan. After this setback, India opened a special cell in Delhi in 2016 to coordinate disruption of CPEC through terrorism. In other words, the trio (Iran-India-Afghanistan) bunched up to harm Pakistan’s security and economic interests.

Iran-India Collaboration to Undermine CPEC

Iran handed over the operational and technical control of Chahbahar port to India with a view to undermine Pakistan’s Gwadar seaport which is part of CPEC. India’s North-South corridor connecting Mumbai seaport with Bandar Abbas seaport and India’s development of Zaranj-Delaram Highway in Afghanistan connecting it with Chahbahar, to facilitate trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, and another project of railway line connecting Zahedan with Helmand and beyond were part of the overall scheme to sabotage CPEC.

The railway project as well as Chahbahar project were annulled by Iran after it signed a $ 80 billion 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with China in 2022.

Cross border Terrorism from Iran

Pakistan’s policy of appeasement was not changed even when it was confirmed that BNA, BLA and BLF had established their bases in Siestan, and were used as proxies by IRGC for cross border terrorism into Baluchistan and Karachi.

In May 2018, Iran’s army chief threatened Pakistan, stating that “if the terrorist attacks continue, we will hit their safe havens and cells, wherever they are”.

In the wake of a series of terror attacks in Western Baluchistan, Pakistan’s foreign minister was forced to say in Apr 2019 that “we have shared actionable intelligence with Iran after due authentication and have identified the location of terrorist camps inside Iran ”.

Despite furnishing a dossier in 2019 based on actionable intelligence containing concrete evidence about the anti-Pakistan militant logistic bases and their pinpoint locations in the province of Siestan, Iran took no steps to refrain RAW and to nab anti-Pakistan Baloch militant groups involved in clandestine activities against Pakistan. Instead, it blamed Pakistan.

Notorious Baloch terrorist Gulzar Imam Shambay, leader of BNA was hiding in Iran. While he was travelling to Afghanistan via Baluchistan, he was arrested in Apr 2023.

While Iran didn’t restrain the anti-Pakistan militant groups, Pakistan never indulged in proxy war against Iran, and exercised restraint even when Iran carried out provocative drone and missile attacks four times, killing our security forces under the plea of targeting anti-Iran terrorists and indulged in border skirmishes.

In January 2023, four Pak soldiers were martyred in Panjgur by Iran based terror group and in April 2023, Pakistan’s border patrol was attacked in Jalgai sector in Kech. Iran’s hand in the murder of Sunni Ulema Council deputy secretary Alama Masoodur Rahman on Jan 5 2024 was ascertained after arresting four accused. They are associated with Iranian Students Organization Tehran.

Apart from the menace of terrorism, Pakistan had to contend with massive smuggling of household goods, fuel barrels and gas cylinders from Iran.

Pakistan’s Security Concerns

Since Pakistan was faced with a twin threat from India and Afghanistan under the occupation of foreign forces, its whole focus was on the eastern and western fronts. It couldn’t afford to antagonize Iran and preferred a lie low policy. It became a strategic compulsion to befriend Iran at all costs and to ignore its aggressive acts.

It was owing to ever-increasing cross border attacks from Iran as well as from Afghanistan that Pakistan had to erect a fence along the 909 km Iranian border in addition to the fence along the 2600 km western border to prevent infiltration.

IRGC under Domestic Pressure

After the twin bomb blasts near the graveyard of slain Gen Soleimani in Kerman on 03 Jan 2024 killing 84 people, IRGC was constantly pressed by the Iranian public to act against those involved in the blasts, and to take action against Israel for its genocidal war in Gaza. It was blamed for not protecting Soleimani, and not avenging his murder in Iraq in 2020, and of Sayyed Razi Mousavi in Syria in Dec 2023. To mollify the public, IRGC used its militias to launch drone attacks against an anti-Iran militant group in Syria (Millat Islamia) and the US airbase in Iraq.

Iran’s Fifth Armed intrusion into Baluchistan

Iran took Pakistan by surprise on the night of 16 Jan by launching unprovoked aerial attacks in Panjgur, resulting in deaths of two innocent children and injury to three girls. IRGC announced that it had carried out an operation using ballistic missiles and drones against two HQs of anti-Iran Jaish-ul Adl in Panjgur, 20 km inside Baluchistan. This kind of aggression was first of its kind.

Iran tried to justify its aggression saying that the strikes were in self-defense, and it had the legitimate right to defend the sovereignty of the country. It further stated that no Pakistani was hit, and the killed and injured were Iranians. The BLF celebrated the air strikes and praised IRGC.

A statement was issued by Jaish-ul Adl claiming that it didn’t operate from Pakistani soil and that IRGC targeted them inside Iran, and in their pursuit, some rockets fell into Pakistan. It was a ruse to restrain Pakistan from retaliating.

India’s involvement was suspected because of Indian foreign minister Jaishankar’s meetings with his counterpart in Tehran and Iran’s Secretary of Supreme National Council on 14-15 Jan.

Pakistan’s Response

Blatant attacks by Iran outraged the people of Pakistan. They demanded that Iran should be treated as an enemy country, and given a befitting response similar to the one given to India in Feb 2019.

On 17 Jan, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a strong message to Iran stating that Pakistan is a sovereign and self-reliant country and a nuclear power. Unprovoked violation of airspace and unjustified air attack by Iran is unacceptable and can have serious consequences. Such unilateral acts are not in conformity with good neighborly relations and can seriously undermine bilateral trust and confidence. Pakistan has the right to act to retaliate at the time and place of its choosing. IRGC must refrain from such aggressive acts. No one will be allowed to play with the sovereignty of the State and a befitting reply matching the aspirations of the people of Pakistan will be given.

Pakistan recalled its ambassador in Tehran, asked Iran’s ambassador on a visit to Tehran not to return, and cancelled all the scheduled official meetings. It suspended the joint Pak-Iran meeting and called back its representative from Chahbahar.

The Pakistan Navy promptly recalled its two warships Madagar and Zhob from Iran.

Operation Barg Mar Sarmachar

A high-level meeting between the Army and PAF chiefs was held at GHQ on 17 Jan to discuss options. After obtaining a go-ahead from the PM Kakar at Davos, the military high command sat together at JS HQ and worked out all the intricate details about Operation ‘Barg Mar Sarmachar’ throughout the day and night of 17/18 Jan as under: –

At 11 pm 17 Jan, closed Pakistan’s border with Iran across Panjgur for an indefinite period. The civil air traffic was instructed to stay away from the Iranian border.

At 1230 am 18 Jan, PAF jets flew closer to Pak-Iran border.

At 01 am, Iran put all its military installations in Siestan on high alert.

At 0130 am, the US condemned Iran’s attacks.

At 0145 am, Saudi Arabia and the USA stood by the side of Pakistan, and India stood on the side of Iran.

At 02 am, explosions were heard at several places in Siestan.

At 0215 am, Pakistan security forces arrested two Iranian agents in Karachi linked with the murder of Alama Masoodur Rahman.

At 0645 am, Pakistan armed forces responded to Iran’s unprovoked blatant aggression on 18 Jan. Series of well-coordinated, specifically targeted precision strikes hit 7 locations in a border village in Saravan town in Sistan province, 20 kms deep inside Iran. BLA and BLF hideouts were targeted based on actionable intelligence. Seven Pakistani origin Baloch terrorists were killed and several injured. Dosta alias chairman, Bajar alias Shafaq, Asghar alias Basham, and Wazir alias Wazi were among the ones sent to hell. All of them had been deeply involved in terrorism against security forces, target killings, kidnappings and robberies for a long time.

At 0715 am, Irani Sunnis confirmed that strikes had taken place 20 km inside Iran’s border and several Pakistani drones were seen hovering in the area.

PAF’s F-16s and JF-17 remained airborne in Karachi and Quetta. The two heroes (Sqn ldr Siddiqui and wing comd Noman) of Feb 27, 2019 air intrusions inside Indian occupied Kashmir were part of the squadrons.

At 0745 am, the New York Times confirmed that Pakistan had struck seven targets in Iran.

At 08 am, the international media broke the news.

At 0815 am, it was reported that Gen Asim Munir had personally supervised the whole operation.

At 0915 am, Saudi Arabia and UAE tried to de-escalate the situation.

At 0930 am, Pakistan issued a warning to Iran that any further action will again be replied sternly.

Iran confirmed that all killed and injured were non-Iranians. IRGC carried out air defence drills in Siestan province and remained in aggressive mode.

On 19 Jan, the NSC reiterated Pakistan’s resolve to respond with ‘full might’ in the face of any violation of its territorial integrity. It undertook a wholesome review of the situation, and lauded the professional, calibrated and proportionate response by the armed forces against unprovoked and unlawful violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Thaw in Pakistan-Iran Relations

Interestingly, the way tensions mounted suddenly and provocatively, the volatile situation defused the same way and tranquility has largely been restored. While Iran took the initiative of calming down the situation, Pakistan responded positively. Measured, proportionate, meticulous and exceptionally mature response spoke of professionalism of Pakistan’s military. There was no boastful remark or a hyperbolic statement by any official from Pakistan. Both sides handled the situation responsibly, and pledged to bring the inter-state relationship to pre-16 Jan at the earliest. Had any side behaved irrationally and emotionally, the regional situation which is already grave due to escalating war in Gaza, would have spun out of control.

It has been agreed that in line with the universal principles governing the conduct of good neighborly relations, the two countries would mutually overcome minor irritants through dialogue and diplomacy and pave the way to further deepen their historic relations. The ambassadors of the two countries have been told to rejoin their posts by 26 Jan and to remove all the irritants diplomatically. At the invitation of Pakistan’s foreign minister, Iran’s foreign minister will be visiting Islamabad on 29 Jan.

Role of China

China played a constructive role in toning down the explosive developments. Its visiting foreign minister stated that China considers Pakistan and Iran as its close friends; any misunderstandings leading to a flare-up could prove devastating for the whole region. China impressed upon both to settle the issue peacefully and amicably.

Blessing in Disguise

For a long time, Pakistan was itching to strike the bases of BLA, BLF and BNA in Siestan, but strategic compulsions came in its way. With hostile eastern and western borders, it couldn’t afford to make its vital southern backyard stormy. Iran’s strikes gave it an opportunity and a justifiable reason to smash the anti-Pakistan elements who had bloodied the people of Baluchistan and Karachi and the security forces.

After Iran’s unprovoked strikes on the 16th, Pakistan held back its counter action for 24 hours hoping that Iran would say sorry for its brazen act and soothe the situation. Instead of apologizing, Iran gave justifications for its attacks to confuse the issue, saying that the targeted terrorists were linked to Israel. It also claimed that only Iranian citizens were targeted. Its erratic behavior compelled Pakistan to react on the 18th.

Not only the safe havens were destroyed, it gave a body blow to the Baloch propagandists backed by local and international media propagating the issue of ‘missing persons and enforced disappearances’ since 2006/07.

Baloch woman Dr. Mahrang had recently undertaken a long march from Quetta to Islamabad and held a sit-in, asking about their whereabouts and demanding their release. The Army, FC and intelligence agencies were maligned. After the 18 Jan strikes, Mahrang in her emotional speech inadvertently blurted that the relatives of the killed Baloch in Saravan were sitting in the sit-in.

It is a well-known fact that the majority of the so-called missing persons had voluntarily joined the militants way back in 2004 and were initially operating from Farari camps in the mountainous interior Baluchistan, and had later shifted to Afghanistan and to the Irani Baloch dominated eastern Baluchistan in Iran. Foreign paid militant groups had become a source of monthly income for the illiterate and jobless Baloch nationals living in interior Baluchistan.

Messages Given

Pakistan’s response was multi-purpose, prompt, firm, deft and astute. It wanted to give a clear message to Iran that whatever it intended to do in the Middle East, the balance of power in this region will remain at par with each other. It conveyed that Pakistan is not Iraq, Syria and Libya, but is a strong military power equipped with full spectrum nuclear deterrence, and has the willpower, capacity and capability to safeguard its territorial integrity. It advised the aggressor to act like a sincere Muslim brother and not like Hazrat Yousaf brothers.

Pakistan also intended to convey a message to its arch rival India that Pakistan’s vigilance and offensive spirit will remain at the same level as it had demonstrated on 27 Feb 2019 in reaction to Indian air intrusion in Balakot. It conveyed that all acts of aggression will be paid back instantly in the same coin without a moment’s hesitation.

The messages are loud and clear to the neighbors harboring aggressive designs. Choice is theirs, if they desire peace, Pakistan will reciprocate, or else aggression will always be responded with aggression.

Pakistan was bled from the soils of its two Muslim neighbors for 20 years and it lost 80,000 lives. Pakistan paid a very heavy price for playing into the hands of double-dealing USA and relying upon duplicitous neighbors and for pursuing a one-sided policy of appeasement.

If it remains silent over the wanton unashamed aggression of its Muslim neighbor (s), then Pakistan will become a whipping boy and a thoroughfare for India and everyone else. And none will sympathize with Pakistan.

The writer is retired Brig Gen, war veteran, defence, security and political analyst, international writer, author of five books, ex-Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, takes part in TV talk shows. asifharoonraja@gmail@com

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