Repeated border encroachments, accusations of harboring terrorist groups leading to border flare-ups, incessant and unchecked illegal immigration from Pakistan, and Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan are vexing Iran.
Washington, DC – Pakistan and Iran’s relations witnessed an upswing under the premiership of now-ousted Pakistan PM Imran Khan. High-profile visits, including regular interaction between the two foreign ministries and exchange of military delegations, have been a regular feature. The recent visit of Pakistan Chief of Joint Staff, General Nadeem Raza, to Iran in July was also much publicized to depict bonhomie. However, these visits and talks have failed to address the core issues, as apparent in some recent incidents.
In August 2022, a Pakistan Air Force delegation and the Pakistan Air and Naval attaché at Teheran were reportedly subjected to intimidation and harassment by the Iranian officials during their visit to the Kashan airbase. The delegation was subjected to intensive search, and when the Pakistan military attaché protested, he was confined and his cell phone confiscated by the Iranian officials. The Iranian officials also remarked that they were only paying back to Pakistan what was being done to their officials in Pakistan. This incident again brings to the fore the deep mistrust between Pakistan and Iran.
Causes of Iran’s vexation with Pakistan
Pakistan sponsoring anti-Iran terrorist cadres: Iran has long accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorist organizations like Jaish al Adl, which are engaged in anti-Iran attacks. An attack by this group in February 2019 resulted in the death of 27 IRGC guards. In a joint press conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in April 2019, these accusations were given credibility by erstwhile Pakistan PM Imran Khan, who acknowledged the suffering caused to Iran by terrorists operating from Pakistan.
Border incursions and violations: Iran and Pakistan have formalized Joint Working Groups to handle the affairs of the borders. However, repeated incursions by Pakistan in the form of erecting border fence within Iranian territory has created acrimony. In December 2021, Iran had reported seven border violations by Pakistan, including the construction of 20 km of Pakistan border fence inside Iranian territory. The response from Pakistan is still awaited.
Border Trade: Despite the meeting between their foreign ministers in Switzerland, tensions between Iran and Pakistan appear to be playing out at the border. Pakistan imposed heavy tariffs on Iranian truckers and was unwilling to issue visas for Iranian drivers, forcing them to unload their cargoes at the border and pass them to Pakistani truckers. Mahmoud Tohidast, a board member of the Tran Pakistan Joint Chamber of Commerce, who put bilateral trade at $1.3 billion despite difficulties, publicly claimed that “Pakistani is making various excuses.” Javad Hedayati, director-general of the Transit and International Affairs Department of Iran Road Maintenance and Transportation Organization (RMTO), said Pakistan had intensified barriers facing Iranian truckers. “It has been about a month since Iranian drivers are facing new restrictions…and the flow of goods…has almost stopped, while Pakistani drivers are coming to Iran as usual,” he said.
Issue of Illegal immigration and Prisoners: Illegal immigration from Pakistan continues to hound Iran, which is already facing a large-scale exodus from Afghanistan. Iran has repeatedly flagged the issue along with Turkey on the incessant flow of Pakistan illegal immigrants. However, Pakistan’s responses to Iran and Turkey have been vague. Iran also flagged the issue of Iranian prisoners in Pakistan jails. Pakistan appears reluctant to release the Iranian prisoners, comprising mainly sailors and their fishing vessels, despite more than 60 Note Verbales issued by the Iranian embassy.
Pakistan’s Claims: On January 25, 2022, a group of Pakistani Baloch-a group historically opposed to the Pakistani government-attacked a checkpoint in the Kech district of Balochistan province, killing 10 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan accused Iran of supporting the attack. This was followed by another major attack by Baloch rebels on February 2. A coordinated attack on the paramilitary Frontier Corps headquarters in the towns of Panjgur and Noshki — areas close to the Iran border and the Baloch majority regions in Afghanistan, respectively stunned the nation. It took the army three days to clear the sites of the suicide attackers.
On February 14, Iran’s interior minister Ahmad Vahidi arrived in Islamabad for a day-long visit with the Commander of the Iranian Border Guards, Brigadier General Ahmad Ali Goudarzi, among other high-ranking officials. The Pakistani leadership publicly hailed the historic “brotherly ties” with Iran. However, privately the delegation was given a stern warning. Pakistani officials warned him, “we know about the use of Iranian soil by Baloch insurgents. If there are more attacks, we will take decisive action.”
Pakistan had also claimed Iranian involvement in Karachi’s May 12 IED attack by the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA). This statement of Pakistan resulted in Iran’s quid pro quo action in the deportation of 107 Pakistani refugees from Iran.
In the face of increasing ethno-sectarian violence, Pakistani authorities are in a bind. Open confrontation with Iran could antagonize a sizable Shia community that makes up roughly 20 percent of the population and open a new front of tensions with Iran. It also risks stoking sectarian fault lines that Pakistan largely overcame after the bloodshed of the 90s.
However, of late, Pakistan’s intelligence officials appear to be deliberately leaking stories to the media about Iranian-backed militancy, further complicating the relations.
“It seems that Pakistan has now reached a tipping point in dealing with Iran,” says Abdul Basit, a research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The situation in Afghanistan, which is witnessing increased ethno-sectarian strife, and Pakistan’s renewed alignment with the US-Saudi Arabia axis further exacerbate the Iran-Pakistan relations.