Pakistan-Iran relations and the security situation in Balochistan
In the past two weeks, western parts of Pakistan have remained in the eye of a new terror storm. In particular, the focus of this new terror wave has been the province of Balochistan which has witnessed multiple terror attacks targeting check posts and camps of Frontier Corps in the districts of Kech, Panjgur and Nushki. These three attacks displayed a new degree of sophistication on the part of the militant outfit Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) resulting in the deaths of 19 security personnel. The Rakhshan and Makran divisions of Balochistan bordering Iran have been the focus of this new terror wave that poses a fresh challenge to law enforcement agencies.
The border zone of Pakistan and Iran has long acted as a hub of operations and activities of Baloch terrorist outfits and in the past five years there have been multiple attacks. Two attacks on the Makran Coastal Highway near Ormara in 2019 and 2020 resulted in the deaths of more than two dozen security personnel. After the April 2019 attack, Pakistan’s foreign minister had claimed that the militants were operating from Iran where they have training camps and logistic facilities. The FM even mentioned that Pakistan had provided Iran with actionable intelligence but there has been no action taken by the Iranian government. This indicates that Pakistani authorities and security agencies are completely aware of the risk posed by Baloch terror outfits’ presence inside Iran. Yet when it comes to taking any formidable action in this regard, the government and security circles have been completely silent.
The specter of violence in Balochistan indeed has its roots in the grievances of the Baloch population of the province and systematic exploitation of the province’s natural resources by successive federal governments. However, it also remains a fact that unlike the terrorist entity Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that had bases and training camps in the former FATA agency and now KPK district of North Waziristan, these Baloch outfits don’t have such facilities within Pakistan and depend upon their camps in Iran and Afghanistan. These terror camps have in part functioned with the support of the Indian Intelligence Agency which was made clear by the arrest of Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav from the Pak-Iran border in 2016. The arrest marked a unique turning point as for the first time Pakistan got a smoking gun on India’s role in fomenting terrorism in Balochistan.
The recent wave of terror in Balochistan shows that Iran has not taken any significant action against the militant outfits, which are continuing to use Iranian soil as a launch pad against Pakistan.
Kulbhushan Yadav was caught on the eve of former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s maiden trip to Pakistan and during the visit, Pakistan’s then Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif took up the Kulbhushan issue with the Iranian President. The Kulbhushan affair had a damning impact on the trip which only complicated the bilateral relationship further. Iranian involvement with criminal enterprises in Pakistan was further highlighted by the confession of Karachi gangster Uzair Baloch that he worked for Iranian intelligence. Furthermore, the involvement of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the recruitment of Pakistanis for its war effort in Syria has been no longer a secret and remains well on the radar of Pakistan’s security and intelligence organizations. The handling of the Kulbhushan affair by the then COAS exhibited that Pakistan appreciated the threat posed by the use of Iranian soil by Indian intelligence operatives and Baloch terrorist organizations.
It appears that with the change in command in the military, this rather confrontationist approach vis-à-vis Iran has been discarded in favour of a strategy to enhance engagement with Iranian security apparatus and to develop bilateral trust between the security regimes of both sides. This was highlighted by the multiple official visits of Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to Iran and the reciprocal visits by Iranian Armed Forces Chief General Mohammad Baqeri. In these parlays between the two sides, the security situation particularly on the Pak-Iran border was discussed and Pakistan used the mechanism to convey its concerns with regards to the activities of terror outfits from Iran. Additionally, Pakistan decided to fence the border with Iran.
On the political front, Pakistan has similarly adopted a cordial and frank approach towards Iran, something also accepted and appreciated by Iranian officials. In a huge concession to Iran, Pakistan’s Premier Imran Khan while sitting in Tehran admitted the use of Pakistan’s soil against Iran. Similarly, the Pakistani government didn’t seal borders with Iran and allowed Pakistani pilgrims to return even when the first wave of Covid-19 had gripped the entire country. These steps contributed to politically streamlining and improving the bilateral relationship.
Despite this strategy on the military and security fronts, the recent wave of terror in Balochistan shows that Iran has not taken any significant action against the militant outfits, which are continuing to use Iranian soil as a launch pad against Pakistan. And neither has fencing impacted this cross-border militant movement. The time has arrived for Pakistan’s decision makers to revise this soft approach and confront Iran to play its part to improve security dynamics in the Pak-Iran border zone.
– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.