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Baluchistan: The borderlands at the heart of Pakistan and Iran’s fight

Baluchistan: The borderlands at the heart of Pakistan and Iran’s fight
Baluchistan: The borderlands at the heart of Pakistan and Iran’s fight

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A brief shooting war between Pakistan and Iran was probably not on your 2024 bingo card. But, as a sprawling set of conflicts roil the Middle East, tensions are flaring on myriad fronts. And that includes the arid wastes of Baluchistan, a region which straddles the Iranian-Pakistani border and has long been a source of friction between the two heavily armed neighbors.

On Tuesday, Iranian missiles allegedly struck targets belonging to Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni fundamentalist militant group that has historically found sanctuary in Pakistan and which Iran says is linked to an Islamic State terrorist strike on a high-profile gathering in the city of Kerman that killed at least 91 people earlier this month.

Tehran said it hit “strongholds” belonging to the militant group, but Pakistani authorities reported civilian casualties, including the deaths of two minors. Then, amid howls of outrage among the Pakistani public and political class, Pakistan struck back Thursday. It said it hit targets on Iranian soil ascribed to the separatist Baluchistan Liberation Army and Baluchistan Liberation Front “using drones, rockets, loitering munitions and standoff weapons.” Iranian state media reported the deaths of at least nine people, including three women and four children.

Hostilities between the two countries periodically flare over the perceived presence of rogue actors on either side of the dusty border. But the current round is striking — Pakistan’s attack on Iranian territory is the first major declared strike on the country’s soil by a foreign power since the bloody Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Iran’s earlier missile bombardment saw Pakistan withdraw its ambassador from Tehran.

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A full-blown crisis may not be in the cards. Given the many geopolitical headaches facing both countries, neither is in the mood for an intensifying dispute. Pakistan’s statement that followed its retaliatory measures closely mimicked Iran’s own language earlier in the week — a sign, some analysts reckoned, of Islamabad’s eagerness to draw a line underneath the spat. Other regional actors are already working behind the scenes to calm tensions.

“Neither side wants further escalation and China, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who have stakes in the stability of southwest Asia have been busy mediating,” Vali Nasr, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me. “The crisis will not likely escalate but it has damaged Iran-Pakistan relations.”

Mohammad Taqi, a Pakistani columnist and commentator, noted the careful choreography that surrounded the incident. “Impeccably curated statements from both Iran and Pakistan,” Taqi wrote on social media. “Neither one seems interested in anything more except killing the Baloch on the opposite sides.”

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Smoldering in the background is this shared conundrum. For both Iran and Pakistan, Baluchistan — whose unforgiving terrain and temperatures nearly wiped out the returning armies of Alexander the Great more than 2,000 years ago — presents a thorny security challenge. The parallel Baluchistan provinces on either side of the borders are vast and sparsely populated. Pakistan’s Baluchistan province comprises more than a third of the nation’s landmass but just 5 percent of its overall population. Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province is the second largest in the country, but is home to just 3 percent of Iran’s population.

In either province, local communities live with a long, complex history of rebellion and grievance against the central state. “Both Iran and Pakistan have for years portrayed the insurgencies in the border region as at least in part rooted abroad,” my colleagues reported. “While Pakistan accused Tehran of turning a blind eye on militants operating from Iran, Iranian officials have in the past said that Jaish al-Adl was hiding out in Pakistan and receiving Israeli support.”

Both Tehran and Islamabad see the borderlands on the other side as potential hotbeds of anti-state activity, pulling in the clandestine assets of various hostile powers — from Israel to India to the United States. Jaish al-Adl and its predecessor, al-Qaeda-linked Jundullah, harp on Shiite Iran’s supposed repression of minority Sunnis to rally locals to its militant cause.

“The only thing we ask of the Iranian government is to be citizens. We want to have the same rights as the Iranian Shiite people. That’s it. We do not want discrimination between Sunnis and Shiites in this country,” Jundullah founder Abdolmalek Rigi said in an interview with al-Arabiya in 2008. He was captured and executed two years later.

None of the groups targeted by Iran and Pakistan can claim to represent a majority groundswell of Baluch public opinion. In the early 20th century, the Iranian monarchy crushed multiple uprisings from various Baluch tribes and sought to undermine their political identity by redrawing provincial borders and forcibly resettling certain Baluch communities. The modern Pakistani state also grappled with waves of Baluch rebellions, starting just a year after Pakistani independence in 1947.

Cash-strapped Pakistan, meanwhile, is desperate to establish some stability and calm in its restive Baluchistan province, which is the site of major Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a landmark port and imagined trade corridor which could help jump-start Pakistan’s sluggish economy. The initiatives have been dogged by delays, some of which are thanks to the impact of a long-running separatist insurgency.

For Iran, the strikes on Pakistan were a matter of saving face. The blasts at the beginning of the year in Kerman targeted a gathering involving thousands of people mourning the fourth anniversary of the assassination of influential Revolutionary Guard commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The powerful paramilitary institution within the theocratic state had to respond.

The attacks were “an embarrassment for the leadership,” an insider source close to the Iranian government told Reuters.

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