Iran and Pakistan have struck each other’s territory while targeting a terrorist group that operates on their shared border, thus confusing observers and analysts alike. Are both countries at an undeclared war? What do these developments have to do, if anything, with the overall escalation of violence in the Middle East that has been going on since Hamas operation on October 7 and Israel’s campaign in Gaza? Here is a summarized chronology of the latest events in Southwest Asia and some context.
The Iranian-Pakistani border region known as Balochistan is home to a Baluchi Islamic-nationalist insurgency against both Iran and Pakistan. The Baluch Sunni movement Jaish ul-Adl is known to cooperate with Kurdish separatist groups in Iran; it also denounces the Iranian presence in the Syrian conflict. Iranian authorities in Tehran accuse (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and the US of being the main funders of Jaish ul-Adl. For years, Sunni extremist groups of a Wahabi Salafist persuasion have launched attacks against civilians in both Iran (a Shia Islamic nation) and Pakistan. The latter is a predominantly Sunni country and an Islamic Republic that has been troubled by ethnic and religious divisions and has been the target of jihadist militant groups – including ethnic Baluch separatists.
In December 2023, the Baluchi group Jaish al-Adl group bombed a police station in Rask (Iran), a town close to the border with Pakistan. On January 4, a crowd gathered in the Iranian city of Kerman to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the murder (by a US drone strike) of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard head general Qassem Soleimani. Two bombs exploded near the general’s burial site, taking the life of 84 people and injuring at least 284. It was the deadliest terrorist attack against Iranians since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, The attack was claimed by the so-called “Islamic State” (Daesh) terrorist group, also known as ISIS.
In retaliation, on January 15, Tehran fired ballistic missiles at what it claimed to be Islamic State terrorist targets in Syria and in (Kurdish-controlled) northern Iraq. The next day, on January 16, Iran launched attacks against alleged militant group Jaish al-Adl’s bases in neighboring Pakistan (a nuclear state), thereby triggering heated protests from the Pakistani authorities in Islamabad. India, Pakistan’s main rival, defended the Iranian measure in a statement, describing it as an act of “self-defense”
Two days later, on January 18, Pakistan’s airstrikes in Iran’s Baluchistan province (also targeting alleged Baluchi combatants) killed several people, according to Tehran.
Let us now move from Baluchistan to the Levant. Tehran for years now has been describing the Daesh terrorist group either as a “creation” of the US-led West or as an American proxy group. It is widely known today the US and its allies have armed and funded Syrian rebels in their efforts to overthrow the Syrian government and empowered ISIS terrorism. The same formula applies to Libya, by the way.
Since 2011, amid a civil war, Syria has counted on military aid from its allies Iran and Russia. The hard truth is that, on the ground, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, together with the (Tehran-backed) Lebanese Hezbollah have been the main anti-terrorist actors in the Levant. These forces are largely responsible for wiping out ISIS terrorists and thus guaranteeing the safety of Christians and other minorities in a region where Wahabi extremists were beheading them, kidnapping them (even “an entire convent of Syrian Orthodox nuns”), and selling and abusing women as sexual slaves, as reported Nina Shea, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute. Already in 2012, journalist Ariel Zirulnick, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, reported that Christians found safe haven in a Hezbollah’s stronghold, where “images of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah share mantel and wall space with the Virgin Mary.”
There is therefore nothing new about Iran’s recent retaliatory strikes against ISIS/Daesh terrorist bases in the Levant. It has been fighting terrorism in the region for over a decade. Likewise, there is nothing new about Tehran fighting ethnic and religious extremist separatism in its Pakistani border. The Persian and the Pakistani nation did not merely “struck each other” – it would be more accurate to say that both targeted their common enemy across their shared border. What is new in this situation is the Iranian role.
A lot of things have changed in the Middle East and a lot of them made Tehran stronger: a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has been under discussion (and has now been made much easier by Israel’s widely condemned military campaign in Gaza). Moreover, the failed US neocolonial policies in Iraq have only increased Iran’s importance in the Levant. However, as we can see, Iranian soft and hard power in West Asia today goes way beyond its “oil diplomacy” in the Levant, extending extra-continentally as far as Venezuela – while American naval hegemony declines. In fact, Simon Tisdall, a Guardian US editor, goes as far as to (convincingly) argue that the “biggest power” in the Middle East is no longer Washington, but actually Tehran.
The latest turmoil involving Tehran, Islamabad and their shared separatist enemies does not, therefore, have much directly to do with the long-going formerly “secret” (now escalating) Iranian-Israeli war; it has much more to do with Tehran’s national and border security being threatened by insurgent groups, who are also funded by Western powers, and with Iran reaffirming itself as a rising regional power – one willing to be more proactive in pursuing targets.
However, the rising Pakistani-Iranian tension does have the potential to limit Eurasian integration and further divide the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – of which both countries and India are members, with India trying to play a “balancing role” as it is also a member of the US-backed Quad. However, no player has an interest in escalating tensions and there is just so much at stake in terms of Eurasian cooperation: for one thing, the Ashgabat agreement between Iran, India, and Pakistan aims to create a transnational transit and transport corridor in order to facilitate the transportation of goods between the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.
One of its goals is enhancing Eurasian connectivity by “synchronizing” it with other transport corridors, such as the North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which, by the way, could become a future alternative to the Suez Canal. Both Iran and Pakistan (and also even India) therefore have common interests in Eurasian stability across Central Asia. This is shown by India’s new willingness to diplomatically engage with the Taliban in Afghanistan, for instance. These Eurasian nations will gain from coordinating security actions while maintaining good neighborly relations.
Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts