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EFSAS Commentary

Permissive policies towards terrorism lead to Iran and Pakistan attacking each other with missiles, endangering regional peace


The Iranian missile strike on 16 January against what it described as hardline Sunni Muslim militants linked to the Islamic State in southwest Pakistan sent shockwaves around the region. The insecurity was heightened further when two days later Pakistan, in retaliatory attacks targeting what it claimed were Baloch separatists in Iran, killed ten people. The Pakistani offensive marked the first air strike on Iranian soil since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, while the strikes into Pakistan were the first time Iran had struck so severely inside the nation’s sovereign territory – that too at a time when Pakistan and Iran’s naval forces were in the midst of a joint exercise designed to underscore the close security cooperation between the two countries. The persistent challenge of terrorist havens has long plagued relations between the two nations, with both accusing each other of failing to confront terrorist factions launching attacks from their respective territories.

That both Iran and Pakistan were apparently targeting hideouts of armed terrorists on each other’s soil – Jaish al-Adl (formerly Jundullah) in Pakistan, and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) in Iran – puts into sharp focus the reality that a permissive, even welcoming and encouraging, outlook towards violence and terrorism in the long run invariably leaves in its wake many seriously deleterious impacts and implications. Hence, to use the words of an editorial in the Pakistani daily Dawn, now “relations between Pakistan and Iran stand at a very delicate juncture”. The military attacks have led to consternation across South Asia, and beyond, and in this new era of violence and intolerance, regional countries would worry that an escalation or widening of the conflict may have serious consequences for stability. Thankfully, the statements that have been made so far by the two sides hint at a reluctance to escalate, with each side emphasizing that these did not represent attacks on a “brotherly” neighbour.

After carrying out its missile and drone strikes, Iran said that its armed forces had targeted an “Iranian terrorist group” in Pakistan. Iran’s State-run Nour News agency said the attacks destroyed the Pakistan headquarters of the Jaish al-Adl. Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said the “focal point of this operation was the region known as Kouh-Sabz (green mountain)” in Balochistan, and that “Two key strongholds of the Jaysh al-Dhulm (Jaish al-Adl) terrorist group in Pakistan” were “specifically targeted and successfully demolished by a combination of missile and drone attacks”. Pakistan asserted that two children were the only victims.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian justified the attacks by saying that “There is a Daesh group, the so-called Jaish ul-Adl, which is an Iranian terrorist group. And they are somehow there, they have taken shelter in some parts of the Sistan-Balochistan province of Pakistan”. He added that the militant group had killed Iranian security personnel, and the Iranian attack was a response to it. Amir-Abdollahian continued, “We have no reservations, no hesitations when it comes to the national interest. This includes addressing terrorist groups inside Pakistan and those affiliated with the Israeli regime. What we did was actually in line with the security interests of Pakistan, Iraq, and our region”. Speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, he sought to assuage Islamabad’s rage by contending that “On Pakistan, none of the nationals of the friendly and brotherly country of Pakistan were targeted by Iranian missiles and drones”. Claiming ironically that Iran respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan, Amir-Abdollahian then thundered that Teheran would not “allow the country’s national security to be compromised or played with”. Mohammad Hosseini, Iran’s Deputy President for Parliamentary Affairs, claimed Pakistan had been warned “that they must prevent the entry into Iran of people who kill large numbers of people”, and so “it was natural to have the reaction of the Islamic republic”.

Pakistan reacted to the attack, hours before which Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar had actually met the Iranian Foreign Minister in Davos, by recalling its Ambassador from Iran, asking the Iranian Ambassador who was visiting Teheran to not return, and suspending all high-level visits, ongoing or planned, between the two countries. Pakistan’s Foreign Office said that the “unprovoked and blatant breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty by Iran” was a violation of international law and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The Foreign Office issued a press release informing that Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani, who was heading the Pakistani delegation to the Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Kampala, Uganda, had received a telephone call from his Iranian counterpart on the matter. It said that Jilani “firmly underscored” that the attack was not only a “serious breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty” but was also an “egregious violation of international law and the spirit of bilateral relations” between Pakistan and Iran. The Foreign Office continued, “Expressing Pakistan’s unreserved condemnation of the attack, the foreign minister added that the incident has caused serious damage to bilateral ties between Pakistan and Iran. The foreign minister added that Pakistan reserved the right to respond to this provocative act”.

After the Iranian attack, the United States (US), China, Turkey and the Taliban government in Afghanistan all called for restraint and dialogue. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said at a briefing that “We consider both Iran and Pakistan as close neighbours and major Islamic countries. We call on both sides to exercise restraint, avoid actions that would lead to an escalation of tension and work together to maintain peace and stability”. She emphasized the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries. Commenting on the Iranian attacks, the spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), however, said, “This is a matter between Iran and Pakistan. Insofar as India is concerned, we have an uncompromising position of zero tolerance towards terrorism”. He added, “We understand actions that countries take in their self defense”.

Two days after the Iranian attacks, Pakistan, on 18 January, informed that it had used killer drones and rockets in a retaliatory strike against separatist Baloch militants inside Iran. The targets were in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province, and were attacked as part of an operation called ‘Marg Bar Sarmachar’, a phrase which loosely translates to “death to the guerrilla fighters”. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry described the attack as “a series of highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes against terrorist hideouts”. Claiming that the attack “was taken in light of credible intelligence of impending large scale terrorist activities”, it added that “The sole objective of today’s act was in pursuit of Pakistan’s own security and national interest, which is paramount and cannot be compromised”. Iran said that 10 people, who were not Iranian nationals, had been killed. In a signal that it did not want escalation, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said that “Pakistan fully respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

Pakistan said the hideouts targeted in the operation were used by the BLA and the BLF, two militant groups fighting for greater regional autonomy. The BLF, however, asserted that it does not have any hideouts in Iran, and that no BLF fighters had been killed in recent attacks. The BLA has not yet commented publicly on Pakistan’s strikes on Iranian territory.

The Tasnim news agency reported citing an official that Tehran had demanded “an immediate explanation” from Pakistan over the strikes. Asfandyr Mir of the US Institute of Peace opined to Reuters that “What will cause anxiety in Tehran is that Pakistan has crossed a line by hitting inside Iranian territory, a threshold that even the US and Israel have been careful to not breach”. However, the BBC felt that Tehran’s reaction to the Pakistani strike appeared to be relatively muted. Michael Kugelman, South Asia director at the Wilson Center, said that while Pakistan's retaliation raised the risk of escalation, “it also provides an opportunity to step back from the brink”. He added, “In effect, the two sides are even now. Islamabad had a strong incentive to try to restore deterrence, especially with Iran on the offensive around the wider region deploying direct strikes and proxies to hit out at threats and rivals. In effect, if Pakistan had held back, it would have faced the risk of additional strikes”.

After the Iranian attack, the United Nations (UN) and the United States (US) both called for restraint. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was “deeply concerned” by the Iran-Pakistan strikes, his spokesman said, adding, “He urges both countries to exercise maximum restraint to avoid a further escalation of tensions”. US President Joe Biden said to reporters that “As you can see, Iran is not particularly well-liked in the region”. He added that the US was now trying to understand how the Iran-Pakistan situation would develop, saying, “Where that goes we’re working on now - I don’t know where that goes”. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US was monitoring the situation “very, very closely” and was in touch with Pakistani officials. He added, “These are two well-armed nations and again we don’t want to see an escalation”.

Shashank Joshi, defence editor at The Economist, refuted the suggestion that the dual strikes were an outcome of the 7 October 2023 Hamas attacks on Israel. Referring to the deadly bomb attack in Kerman earlier this month that he described as “the worst terrorist attack in Iran since the revolution of 1979”, Joshi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, that “The story here is about Iran flexing its muscles, perhaps outraged by what it saw as a grievous assault on its country. Iran is wounded and is lashing out. I don’t think there’s any compelling reason to say the bombing was caused by, or is an outcome of 7 October”. He added that this is “not the first time there have been border tensions, but it is by far and away the most serious escalation in tensions that I can remember”.

Gregory Brew, an analyst at Eurasia Group, concurred. He said Tehran’s strikes were motivated in large part by Iran’s rising concerns about the threat of domestic militant violence in the wake of the deadly 3 January bombing claimed by the Islamic State group that killed nearly 100 people at a ceremony in the southeastern city of Kerman to commemorate commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone in 2020. Brew said, “There’s a lot of domestic pressure to ‘do something,’ and the leadership is responding to that pressure”. Iran has been pressing Islamabad for years to address the presence of militants near its border, Brew added. The missile strikes were a sign that Tehran had lost patience, he said.

Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council believes that Pakistan’s expected and rapid response on 18 January had raised the ante, but it was unclear whether either country had the desire or the ability to escalate to direct conflict with each other’s forces. He also expressed doubts about whether Prime Minister Kakar “took that decision or whether the military took it for him, since he had a public meeting with the Iranian foreign minister in Davos”. He continued, “A weak caretaker government in Pakistan cobbled together to hold elections on February 8 may not be best equipped to deal with these complicated issues, allowing the military to take center stage yet again”.

On the way forward, Kugelman believes that “Diplomacy will be critical from here on out”. He feels that de-escalation would be difficult in the immediate term, “given the high tensions and temperatures at play” but the saving grace was that neither country appeared poised for conflict, and both countries have highlighted in public statements that their attacks were not aimed at each other’s nationals, thereby signaling they don’t want escalation.

Mark N. Katz of the Atlantic Council underlined that “Jihadists have become an increasing threat to the Pakistani government”. For Pakistan, the payback for its long-practiced playbook of creating terrorist proxies to attack neighbouring countries is proving very costly. The Iranian crisis has come at a time when Islamabad’s relations with India and Afghanistan have already deteriorated sharply. As Kamran Bokhari of the US-based New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy put it, “After Afghanistan on the West and India on the East, this could open conflict on a third border. I am not too sure if Islamabad is ready for that”. Pakistan’s relations with arch-rival India can be termed frosty at best. It has for long been exporting terror to India while importing food products, pharmaceuticals and industrial raw materials from it. Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani Ambassador to the US, the United Kingdom (UK), and the UN, wrote regarding Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan that “Over the past year, relations have become increasingly strained as Pakistan’s security concerns about the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), based in Afgha­nistan, have not elicited a meaningful response from Kabul”.

The apprehension that the current crisis between Iran and Pakistan may flare up further has subsided after conciliatory statements were issued by the two sides, but an equally consequential danger remains for Pakistan. Over the past few years, Pakistan has not been able to detect even one of the many violations of its territory and sovereignty that have taken place. The US helicopter raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, India’s bombing of a terrorist camp in Balakot, and now Iran’s missile strikes, have all taken place absolutely undetected. Also, all three attacks have been directly related to Pakistan’s decades-long policy of sponsoring terrorists and its sheltering them on its soil.

The repeated breaches of Pakistan’s border defenses do not inspire confidence for the safety and security of the country’s nuclear arsenal, and the infestation of terrorists in the country adds significantly to these concerns.