Tension on the Pakistan-Iran Border: A Breakdown in Bilateral Relations?

29 October 2014 FDI Team

Recent border clashes between Iran and Pakistan have strained relations between the two states. Sectarian violence, furthermore, continues to present major problems and needs to be addressed to stabilise the region.

Background

Iran-Pakistan relations have been strained recently, following clashes between Pakistani and Iranian forces. It is alleged, for instance, that a vehicle carrying Pakistani forces came under fire from Iranian border guards resulting in the death of a Pakistani paramilitary officer and wounding of four soldiers. The clash was followed by threats made by Iran to send in troops across the border if Pakistan did not make an effort to curb Sunni militants. An attack by Baloch militants killing two Iranian border guards took place earlier on 8 October which prompted the Iranian threats.  Iran has repeatedly criticised Pakistan for failing to control Sunni militants operating from bases in its territory along the Pakistan-Iran border. As the Iranian Foreign Ministry Director General for West Asia Affairs Rasoul Eslami said to Pakistani Ambassador Noor Mohammad Jadmani on 18 October, it is ‘unacceptable for us that a number of terrorists and bandits trespass our territory from the Pakistani soil and attack and kill our country’s border guards’.

Comment

Ties between the two states were historically pragmatic and devoid of religious concerns. More recently, however, with many Sunni Muslims being oppressed in Iran and increasing acts of violence against Shi’a Muslims in Pakistan, religious ideology has played a major role in the breakdown of Iran-Pakistan relations. Within Pakistan, which is Sunni majority, there has been a dramatic increase in sectarian violence towards the Shi’a minority. Earlier this year, on 9 June, a group of around 300 Shi’a pilgrims who were visiting religious shrines in Iran were attacked by Sunni militants in the Pakistani border town of Taftan. The attackers as well as suicide bombers stormed a hotel in the town with machine guns and grenades, killing over 30 Shi’ites. Human Rights Watch has also recorded the killing of 850 Shi’a Muslims by Pakistani Sunni militants in 2012 and 2013. Pakistanis tend to view Shi’a Muslims, especially the Hazaras in Balochistan, with suspicion over presumed ties with Iran. Hazaras are unique in that they speak mostly Farsi, fuelling allegations that they are Iranian spies. They also refuse to fight separatists within Pakistani Balochistan, which has drawn the attention of the state’s military and intelligence services, raising concerns over state-sponsored sectarian violence against the Shi’ites in Balochistan.

Sunni militia groups from Pakistan have also been attacking Shi’ites in Iran. This has exacerbated tensions between the states, especially as Pakistan’s response to militant groups targeting Shi’a is often seen as perfunctory and possibly complicit while cracking down on Shi’ite militant groups. The Sunni militant groups operate mainly out of Pakistani Balochistan, on Iran’s eastern border. Groups such as Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl, are responsible for several attacks on the Shi’a population in Iran, including a bombing carried out by Jundullah in 2009 that killed forty people. After this attack, Iran accused Pakistan of backing Jundallah in order to fuel instability within the country. Whether or not these allegations are true, the lack of real effort on the part of the Pakistani government in cracking down on Sunni extremists in Balochistan does raise some concerns over the legitimacy of the government’s counter-terrorism efforts.

Economic collaboration between the states has also been strained. A so-called “peace pipeline” project that would transport Iranian gas to Pakistan then India was reported to be scrapped by Iran. The Iranian government was quick to dismiss these reports however; the Iranian Oil Ministry announced that despite some differences on the issue, the Iranian side was committed to continue co-operation to finalise the project. Iran completed its 900 kilometre section of the pipeline but had to wait for Pakistan to complete the construction of its 700 kilometre section. It is unlikely that Pakistan will complete the section by the December 2014 deadline. This is largely due to Iran’s decision to cancel financial assistance to Pakistan in December 2013, as Pakistan showed reluctance to complete the project due to pressure from Saudi Arabia. Consequently, Pakistan will have to pay heavy daily penalties to Iran, which may entail millions of dollars each day. The Sustainable Development Policy Institute concluded in a policy brief on the pipeline that, ‘This is a death sentence for Pakistan’s economy and it is unfortunate on behalf of Pakistan who has blatantly ignored the energy dynamics and its pricing while going for this deal’. Economic difficulties resulting from this pipeline may become a source of resentment towards Iran in the long term future.

It is unlikely that Iran-Pakistan relations will be resolved anytime soon, especially now given Iran’s interests in supporting the Assad regime in Syria and Pakistan’s involvement with Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia, which seeks the Syrian regime’s downfall. Sectarian violence will continue to be a pressing issue for both sides. Sunni extremists within Balochistan will continue their attacks on Iran, tempting the Iranian government to cross the border and flush out the extremists if the Pakistani government continues to take a passive stance. If this were to occur, tensions and violence are likely to flare up again given the previous dialogue that emphasised border sovereignty. Both sides have agreed to share intelligence on the border, but whether or not this will increase stability in the region, or if these commitments are followed through, is to be seen. A pressing issue for Pakistan is the construction of the pipeline. It is unlikely that Pakistan will benefit from the programme, especially given the heavy financial penalties that are fast approaching, and which may lead to further long-term animosity towards Iran.

Jarryd de Haan
Research Assistant
Indian Ocean Research Programme

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