Challenges of Terrorism Along Pakistan-Iran Borders

ByAsif Durrani

The killing of 27 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel in a suicide attack on 13th February at Zahedan-Khash road, approximately 110 kilometres from the Pakistani border, has been a serious incident in recent times. Iran-based Jaish-e Adl group comprising Baloch dissidents from the Iranian Balochistan owned the responsibility for the act. However, Iranian officials were quick to blame Pakistan for being lenient to the Iranian Baloch dissidents. The IRGC’s Al-Quds commander General Soleimani, who has earned a legendary status in the country for commanding his forces in Iraq and Syria against Daesh, criticised Pakistan for the slackness which emboldened “terrorists” to use Pakistani soil for operations against Iran. He also threatened that “if Pakistan is unable to take action then Iran would not hesitate in taking direct action against the terrorists”.

Iranian grouse against the terrorist attacks, past and present, is understandable. However, Iranian leadership’s harsh language against Pakistan was not only shocking for many in Pakistan but was a pointer to the emerging dangers in the region, a prospect both Pakistan and Iran would prefer to avoid. For officials in both the countries must have realised that the history of Pakistan-Iran relations has been rooted in standing by each other during difficult times. It is also a fact that both the countries have been passing through political upheavals. The four decades of Iran’s theocratic revolution has been considered a threat in the neighbourhood, especially to the GCC countries. The critics of Iranian revolution believe that the intrusive nature of polity pursued by the revolutionaries has created more friction than cohesion in the region.

Pakistan is not a revolutionary state and has had its own problems. Domestically, it has been grappling with myriad challenges of establishing democracy in the country while it received frequent jolts due to developments taking place in the region. For instance, Gen Zia Ul Haq and Gen Pervez Musharraf who suffered the crisis of legitimacy within the country till their last day in power became darlings of the United States and the West when there was crisis in Afghanistan, first when erstwhile Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and, later when 9/11 happened. Earlier, Gen Ayub Khan opted to be the American ally and made Pakistan a member of the South East Asian Security Organisation (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) to contain “Soviet expansionism”. Therefore, during substantive part of Pakistan’s existence, the country was aligned to the Western alliance led by the US. However, one thing was clear that Pakistanis always resisted Bonapartism and struggled for freedom of expression, especially during Gen Zia’s brutal rule when journalists were put behind bars and flogged.

“Iran has yet to explain as to how a serving Indian Naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadev, could run Indian intelligence agency RAW’s operation through Chabahar

The reason for giving a comparison between the Iranian and Pakistani systems of governance is to make an informed opinion about the ground realities or compulsions which each side might be facing. Iran should know that it is not the centre of universe. A revolutionary mindset in Iran cannot be replicated in Pakistan or elsewhere and also cannot serve as a yardstick for determining Iran’s friendship with the Islamic world. Being sovereign countries, both can choose their friends without harming each other’s interests. Pakistan has followed this policy from the beginning and would be well advised to maintain its neutral stance in the ongoing Iran-GCC rivalry.

While Jaish-e Adlmay have claimed the responsibility of attacks on the IRGC vehicles on Zahedan-Khash highway which is approximately 110 km from Pakistan border, Iran cannot deny the fact that there is a problem in Sistan-o-Balochistan where people are struggling for their political rights in their own province. It is a common grudge amongst the Baloch population in the Iranian Balochistan that they are under-represented in the government, bureaucracy and armed forces. So much so that mayor and deputy mayors in the province are sent from Tehran. Sectarian divide is another major source of friction in the province where overwhelming majority of Baloch are Sunnis. Sunni religious leaders face discrimination and at times are forbidden to meet their own people. Poverty amongst the Baloch is the highest if compared to rest of the country.

Iranian officials waste no time in blaming Pakistan for each action of the Jaishe Adl in the Iranian Balochistan. However, they have to take remedial measures to address the grievances of the Baloch population. There is a need to create the sense of belonging amongst the Baloch people so that they don’t have to look for allies beyond their borders. Pakistan has adopted a policy of no tolerance with regard to dissidents carrying out activities from the Pakistani Balochistan. Just two days ago four of IRGC personnel were recovered by the Pakistani security forces from the clutches of Baloch dissidents. In fact, the success rate of Pakistani security forces in recovering Iranian security officials has been substantive; same is true about other criminals taking shelter in Pakistani Balochistan.

Pakistan also entertains certain grievances against the Iranian revolutionary zeal which, at times, intrudes into Pakistan’s internal affairs. Pakistan never had Shia-Sunni problem before the Iranian revolution. In fact, in the beginning many religious organizations were enthusiastic about the Islamic revolution in Iran as they saw similar prospects opening up in Pakistan. Jamaat Islami of Pakistan was particularly upbeat about the Iranian revolution. However, once Iran declared Shi’ism as official religion of Iran in its constitution, Pakistani religious parties had to distance themselves from the Iranian revolutionaries. Secondly, despite dictatorships in Pakistan, the country always struggled for democracy and freedom of expression. This would come into conflict with a revolutionary mindset which looks at things through “us and they” prism.

It is now in the public knowledge that Iranian revolutionaries have been recruiting Pakistani Shias for the “Zainab youn Brigade” on the pretext of protecting holy shrines in Iraq and Syria. Those killed during operations in Iraq and Syria are buried in Qom and their families are being looked after by the Iranian government. Pakistan has been raising this matter frequently with the senior Iranian officials with the advice that Iran’s recruitment drive would create monsters which would ultimately be detrimental to Pakistan’s national security.

More importantly, Iran has yet to explain as to how a serving Indian Naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadev, could run Indian intelligence agency RAW’s operation through Chabahar. He was arrested by Pakistani officials for carrying out terrorist activities in Pakistani Balochistan and Karachi. His two accomplices fled Chabahar despite the Iranians being informed by Pakistan in real time. Jadev’s arrest while shocking for Pakistan was equally embarrassing for Iran as it called into question the Indian role in the Iranian Balochistan. Not only that some elements of the Pakistani Balochistan’s dissident organisations, including BLA and BRA, have been taking shelter in the Iranian Balochistan with full knowledge of the Iranian officials.

Despite harsh statements from the Iranian leadership there was complete restraint exercised by the Pakistani side as contentious issues between friends can be effectively tackled, away from the public glare. For Pakistan, maintaining a friendly relationship with Iran is a strategic imperative. JaisheAdl may be straddling on both sides of borders between Pakistan and Iran but its activities in Pakistani Balochistan have always been under minute scrutiny. However, prudence demands that sense of deprivation amongst the Baloch youth on both sides of the border should be addressed on priority basis.

Source:  The Daily Times 

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Asif Durrani
Asif Durrani
Former Ambassador to Iran