Why Pakistan retaliated to
Iran strikes and its repercussions

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By Tilak Devasher

Relations between Iran and Pakistan have been complex. Iran was the first country to recognise Pakistan in 1947. Iran gave a state funeral to Iskander Mirza, Pakistan’s President after General Yahya Khan, refused to have his body brought back to Pakistan from London. In the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Iran provided safe bases to the Pakistan Air Force. During the 1973-77 Baloch insurgency, the Shah’s government provided Pakistan with 30 helicopters and pilots to strafe the Baloch.
Despite this, insurgencies of their ethnic Baloch populations have complicated relations. While there has been intermittent cooperation, both have also accused the other of sheltering insurgents. Away from the media glare, the Iran-Pakistan border has been a troubled one with skirmishes but these have been kept below the threshold of open hostilities. Over the years, mechanisms and channels of communication have been established to deal with these situations.

That was why the Iranian missile and drone attack on January 16 came as a surprise. The attacks targeted the village of Sabz Koh, about 60 km inside Pakistan, in Balochistan’s Panjgur district, killing two children and injuring three other civilians. According to Iran, they had targeted a Pakistan-based Iranian Sunni terrorist group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice, formed in 2012) that has carried out several attacks in Iran. Jaish al-Adl or Jaysh al-Dhulm as it is called in Iran, is a successor of the Iranian Baloch extremist group, Jundallah (Soldiers of God). Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Shia Iran’s severe treatment of the Baloch has fuelled Sunni radicalism in Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran.

Pak-Iran border
Pak-Iran border

Interestingly, the Iranian strikes in Pakistan came a day after a series of attacks it carried out in Syria and Iraq. Iran blamed Israel’s Mossad for the January 3 terrorist strikes in the Iranian city of Kerman when two bombs killed 84 Iranians gathered on the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the Revolutionary Guard general.

Pakistan saw the Iranian attack as a serious violation of its sovereignty. Its initial response was diplomatic — withdrawal of the ambassador and calling off all bilateral visits. This was followed by strikes in Sarwan in Sistan-Balochistan on January 18, in which nine persons, including women and children, were killed. According to Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistan military’s mouthpiece, hideouts used by the Balochistan Liberation Army and Baloch Liberation Front were successfully struck in the operation code-named Marg Bar Sarmachar.

Interestingly, however, trade between the two continued as usual with all border-crossing points kept open despite the mutual attacks.

Pak-Iran map
Pak-Iran map

For Iran, either escalating or not responding to the Pakistani attacks carried risks. The former would end up diverting its attention from the other conflicts in the Middle East that it was involved in. The latter risked inviting attacks from regional adversaries for whom the message would be that Iran could not sustain a direct conflict. Since both options were bad, it leads to the moot question of whether Iran had war-gamed the consequences of its actions against Pakistan and if it did, then perhaps, its objective was something else.

There are several views on this. Given the multiple crises in Pakistan — economic, political, security — Iran possibly assessed that it would not be in a position to retaliate and even if it were, it would avoid militarily confronting Iran. Moreover, Iran needed to signal domestically that faced with several attacks in Sistan-Balochistan, it had the capacity and will to target Jaish al-Adl terrorists in Pakistan. However, the most consequential reason could well be the need to signal to its adversaries in the Middle East and the US that any attempt to harm it either directly or through proxies would be countered strongly.

Clearly, Iran miscalculated Pakistan’s reaction. The one thing Pakistan cannot afford is an impression that despite being the Islamic world’s only nuclear power, it is actually too weak to defend its sovereignty. Like Iran, the Pakistan army also has strong domestic compulsions. Its reputation had taken a beating during the past year due to the antics of Imran Khan. The general impression that it was rigging the forthcoming elections to ensure that he did not return to power has further dented its image. A military response was a given, the only question being the scale of it — a tit-for-tat or a disproportionate response. Ultimately, Pakistan decided on the former.

Immediately after the attacks, both countries dialled down their hostilities, expressing a desire to work together in a spirit of mutual trust and cooperation. The ambassadors have returned. However, despite the diplomatic language, it is obvious that the relations have been damaged by the events, more severely than in the past.

While both countries have indulged in signalling, the fact remains that it is the poor, hapless Baloch on both sides that have been killed and there is no one to protest their killings.

While Pakistan seems to have gotten over this crisis, at least for the time being, domestic events are taking centre stage. Even as elections are a week away on February 8, Khan has been sentenced to imprisonment in two cases — 10 years in the cipher case and 14 years in the Toshakhana case. The former case pertains to using a secret foreign office telegram for political purposes and then “misplacing” it, the latter pertains to taking gifts received when he was prime minister and then selling them off without disclosing it. While these sentences would be appealed against, for the time being, they pose serious hurdles to his political career.

(Tilak Devasher is an author and member, National Security Advisory Board. Views are personal)