The abduction of 14 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps members is setting Iran and Pakistan on a collision path, despite both countries making an earnest effort to improve relations.
Following the abduction of 14 members of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) on the border between Iran and Pakistan last week there is an increasing threat of permanent proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia happening inside Pakistan.
Angered at what it regards as an infiltration of proxy terror groups, the IRGC has carried out several military operations in the volatile border region between Iran and Pakistan, but has failed to uproot the terror cells.
Diplomatic approaches by Iran have also not yielded results. Iran is now shifting the blame to Pakistan, suspecting infiltration from Saudi proxies with the approval of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
The guards were abducted last Monday on the border post of Mirjaveh in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province, a highly porous border frequented by terror groups and drug smugglers alike.
“We expect Pakistan to confront these terrorist groups that are supported by some regional states, and immediately release the kidnapped Iranian forces,” IRGC said.
It asked the Pakistani army “to hand over those responsible and ensure the safety and security of those abducted.”
The language implies that the IRGC sees Pakistan as somehow either directly or tacitly involved in the kidnapping. Its reference to “some regional states” is, indeed, Saudi Arabia. Its expectation for action by Pakistan is based on new security arrangements between the two countries.
Relations between Iran and Pakistan improved with the coming to power of the new Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, and the new military chief, Major General Qamar Bajwa, who in a rare move visited Iran last November and agreed on establishing a direct communication channel coordinating border patrolling.
In July this year Iran’s military chief Major General Mohammad Baqeri, returned the rare move by visiting Pakistan to discuss the process of their security agreement.
The recent attacks, though, seem to cast doubt on the burdgeoning relationship.
Jaish ul-Adl (Army of Justice), which accepted responsibility for the kidnapping of the Iranian border guards in Baluchistan, is part of an anti-Shia Sunni network allegedly acting as a joint proxy of ISI, and the Saudi intelligence.
The group has carried out at least three cross-border kiddnappings in the past five years often killing one or more of the people it abducted. It is a splinter of Jundullah (The People’s Resistance Movement of Iran).
Additionally, the former military chief of Pakistan, General Raheel Sharif heads the Islamic Counter Terrorism Alliance which was formed by the Saudi Kingdom in 2015. The Alliance is mainly made up of Sunni-dominated countries and excludes Iran, Iraq and Syria.
IRGC statements use words such as “infiltration” and “treason” indicating that Iran believes that many of these terror groups work in conjunction with their Pakistani and Iranian counterparts and aim to cause instability in Iran.
Iran is mindful of the fact that the US-Saudi-Israel triangle has vowed to put as much pressure on Iran as possible to destabilise the country.
When Imran Khan came to power, Iran had hoped for improvements in the situation. He had supported Iran’s position vis a vis the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and voiced criticism of the US president Donald Trump calling him“ignorant and ungrateful” for cutting the security aid to Pakistan.
Yet Pakistan’s position on Iran is rather complex. It likes to appear neutral in its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia but it cannot ignore the Saudi support for its nuclear project nor the fact that the Saudi Kingdom has often bailed out Pakistan in financial crisis.
The Pakistan army, in principle, supports the Saudi military operations in Yemen, despite the Pakistani parliament refusing to take part in the war, whereas Iran supports the opposition Houthis.
Imran Khan promised to make Iran the first country to visit when he became the premier, but he instead went to Riyadh.
With its own economy in tatters with heavy US sanctions, Iran is in no position to offer the same financial support to Pakistan. In any case Pakistan’s ISI operates with little attention to the dictate of the central government.
Its main priorities are in Afghanistan and India, not Iran. It is even likely to play the card of Iran to get advantages from both the US and Saudi Arabia.
And that’s where the danger lies. Any further escalation of the security situation in Pakistan’s western border of Baluchistan is likely to turn into a permanent war zone not too dissimilar to the Afghan-Pakistan border region or Pakistan’s eastern border with India in Jammu and Kashmir.
Iran too, is likely to see an intensification of attacks in its other sensitive borders, in the northern Iraqi Kurdistan border or its southern western border as it experienced in the recent Ahvaz attack.
That is why Iran and Pakistan can no longer afford to play a dangerous proxy game. They need a coordinated strategy that combines the political with the military to defeat these terror organisations that have for too long been allowed to mushroom around the region devastating life.