Pakistan’s security concerns top Khan’s agenda on visit to Iran
Dubai - Iran and Pakistan agreed to set up a joint rapid reaction force for their shared border, which stretches nearly 1,000km. The agreement came as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan made his first visit to Iran, which had been postponed earlier in the year.
The neighbours agreeing to a joint force comes after a terrorist attack in Pakistan’s south-western province of Balochistan on April 15. Militants wearing military uniforms stopped a bus en route from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, to Gwadar on a key coastal highway and killed 12 Pakistani military servicemen.
Days before Khan’s visit to Iran, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi declared that the attackers belonged to an alliance of three Iran-based Baluchi terror organisations.
The Iran border with Pakistan is largely undeveloped, sparsely populated but is taking on increasing significance. Both the Iranian and Pakistani sides of the border are home to Baluchis, an ethnic group that largely adheres to Sunni Islam but where conservative tribal codes remain socially relevant.
Iran and Pakistan have faced low-level Baluchi separatist threats since the 1970s but recent years have seen a marked escalation of terrorist attacks on both sides of the border.
In February, 27 members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were killed in a suicide car bombing near Iran’s border with Pakistan. The attack was claimed by Jaish ul-Adl but raised tensions between the neighbours as Tehran vowed to make Pakistan “pay a high cost” for its loss.
It was Jaish ul-Adl’s second major terrorist attack in recent years. In April 2017, ten Iranian border guards were killed in an ambush while patrolling near the Pakistani border.
Jaish ul-Adl was created by former members of Jundallah, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province that claims to fight Shia discrimination, after its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, was executed in Iran in 2010.
Sunni extremists targeting Shias, however, remains a big problem for Pakistan, too. On April 12, terrorists killed 16 civilians from the Shia Hazara community in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State, which also said it carried out the terrorist bombings April 21 across Sri Lanka.
After the attack on its servicemen, Pakistan announced its intention to fence its border with Iran. Tehran has been constructing its own border wall since 2007 when a terrorist attack in the border town of Zahedan killed civilians and IRGC personnel.
Balochistan has become centre ground in Pakistan’s economic future and its military is taking a special approach to security there but the expanse and terrain of the Iran-Pakistan border makes it challenging to police effectively.
Pakistan has attempted to deepen ties with Iran in a bid to counter the influence of its arch-rival India but Islamabad has had limited success because Tehran remains sensitive to Pakistan’s historical alliance with Saudi Arabia.
India has retained close ties with Tehran and is investing heavily in Iran’s Chahbahar Port, a project whose success New Delhi says is threatened by Gwadar Port, which Pakistan is developing with China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Last year, Pakistani agencies captured a senior Indian intelligence operative named Kulbhushan Jadhav, who had been crossing into Pakistan undetected for years via Iran. Jadhav reportedly confessed to India’s aim to sabotage Pakistan’s economic corridor being developed with China.
Iran has been India’s largest supplier of crude oil but this is changing because of American sanctions as US President Donald Trump aims to enforce unprecedented pressure on the Iranian economy. The United States said it will not grant another waiver to India to continue buying oil from Iran. Instead New Delhi will need to meet its demand from its other major suppliers, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Ten years ago, India aborted the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline at an advanced stage after signing a civilian nuclear deal with the United States, which was viewed controversially as India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran reportedly constructed its segment of the pipeline up to the border with Pakistan but, owing to geopolitical considerations and tightening US sanctions against Iran, Islamabad has cooled interest in the project despite its acute gas shortages.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Khan discussed the need to deepen ties by enhancing bilateral trade but from the current low point in ties and considering Iran’s growing international isolation, confidence-building will take time. A joint border force may help Iran and Pakistan focus on a narrow agenda that could prove crucial in the years ahead.