Pakistan’s current Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Asim Munir’s two-day visit to Iran in mid-July occurred against the backdrop of a spike in infiltration of Balochi militants and smuggling. The Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Public Relations stated, “Military commanders on both sides agreed that terrorism was a common threat to the region in general and both countries in particular.” Pakistan’s COAS met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Hossain Bagheri and also called on Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
The Iranian media was upbeat in depicting Munir’s meetings with his counterpart and President Raisi as a sign of strengthening defense cooperation. Raisi emphasized converting the border into a safe economic zone through energy trade and border markets. However, the situation on the ground is anything but peaceful.
On July 12, the Pakistan Army lost 12 soldiers in suspected militant attacks in the turbulent Balochistan Province, including an assault on one of its bases. The attackers armed with guns, hand grenades and rockets killed nine troops. In another incident, three more Pakistani soldiers and five Balochi militants were killed in an exchange of fire in the Zhob district in the province.
On July 8, two police officers were killed in an attack by four militants in Iran’s Zahedan district in Sistan-Balochistan that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. All four attackers were killed, according to a statement from Iran’s IRGC. The militants allegedly belonged to Jaish-ul-Adl, a Sunni militant group that operates along the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran border.
In April, Pakistan arrested Gulzar Imam, also known as Shambay, who founded the Baloch Nationalist Army. This high-value target admitted to planning attacks on Pakistan’s armed forces from Iran and Afghanistan.
Islamabad believes that Iran’s Makran coast is home to an Indian spy network that funds, trains and masterminds attacks on its armed forces in Balochistan. In 2017, Pakistan announced that it had arrested Kulbhushan Sudhir Jadhav, an Indian national. When apprehended, his search revealed a fake passport that identified him as Hussain Mubarak Patel, and it contained a valid Iranian visa. Islamabad’s increased military-to-military contacts with Tehran are largely driven by its concern over Indian activities.
Both sides cast their interactions as a sign of goodwill and growing cooperation. In reality, neither the two neighboring militaries hold substantial drills nor acquire each other’s military hardware. In June, Rear Admiral Arya Shafqat Rudsari, the commander of the Imam Khomeini Naval University of Noshahr, led a delegation to attend the Pakistan Navy’s graduation ceremony. While such visits receive little to no coverage in Pakistan, the Iranian media reports on them extensively for the sake of public consumption and amplifies the Iranian army’s growing cooperation with its counterparts.
The other thorny issue concerning the border is the considerable smuggling of petroleum and goods into Pakistan. Electronic items and foreign currencies, particularly US dollars and British pounds, are smuggled into Iran. Tehran has been pressing Islamabad to formalize this “business activity” by setting up markets for the adjoining areas. In sync with an MoU signed in April 2021, Iran and Pakistan inaugurated a joint border market as well as an electricity transmission line on May 18, 2023. Since the opening of the first such market, no decrease in smuggling has been noticed. In total, six border markets are to be opened.
Pakistan-Iran relations are underlined by a tricky balancing act. Ties are more rhetorical than even transactional. Bilateral trade and military cooperation remain at a bare minimum. The IRGC’s recruitment of Pakistani Shiites to join the Zeinabiyoun Brigade to keep in place the Syrian regime angered Islamabad immensely, but it refrained from publicly calling Tehran out. On the Iranian side, the anxiety over foreign support for Balochi and Sunni militants in Sistan-Balochistan keeps it wary of Pakistan. The two neighbors seek to maintain a working relationship with a façade of bilateral cooperation. Their foreign and security policies are far from aligned.
Yet another lingering issue has been the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, the groundbreaking ceremony for which was carried out by then-Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in March 2013. As per the agreement, the pipeline was to be completed by December 2014 to supply 750 million cubic feet of gas per day to Pakistan. Deterred by punitive sanctions, the 781-kilometer pipeline on the Pakistani side has not been laid. As a consequence, besides issues over the pricing formula, Pakistan is required to pay Iran a fine of $1 billion for each year from 2014 onwards, which totals $19 billion in 2023. The punitive clause was accepted by the then-Pakistani government without due consideration if not collusion. For long, Islamabad has viewed the gas pipeline deal as a rip-off while Tehran argues that it has been treated unfairly.
Iran and Pakistan may not meaningfully improve their relations until sanctions on Tehran’s nuclear program and its interference in sovereign states ends. Until then, prime ministerial or commander-level visits serve the mutual interest of keeping the bare minimum relationship intact.