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Iran-Pakistan: Tensions, Trade, and Tribal Dynamics

The Iran-Pakistan Border


The Iran-Pakistan border is approximately 959 kilometers long. It extends from the tripoint with Afghanistan in the northwest to the Arabian Sea in the south. The terrain along the border is diverse, ranging from mountainous regions to plains. The border traverses through the Baluchistan region, and the landscape includes deserts and rugged mountains. The border is not significantly defined by major rivers. However, several smaller rivers and streams may be found in the surrounding areas. The border is marked by various physical demarcations, including pillars and markers, to indicate the boundary line.



The border is a result of historical agreements between the two nations and has evolved based on various treaties and diplomatic negotiations. The demarcation is recognized by both countries, and any changes to the border would require bilateral agreements. Like many international borders, the Iran-Pakistan border is under the control of respective border security forces from both countries. Border security is crucial for preventing illegal activities, including smuggling and unauthorized crossings.


The areas along the border are inhabited by diverse ethnic groups, including Baloch communities. The movement of these populations influence the dynamics of the border region. The border serves as a crucial trade and transit route between Iran and Pakistan. Legal trade and movement of goods take place through established border crossings. Like many international borders, the Iran-Pakistan border faces challenges such as smuggling, illegal immigration, and occasional tensions that may arise due to various geopolitical factors. The primary border crossing points between Iran and Pakistan include Taftan-Mirjaveh and Mand-Pishin.


The Border Crossings


The border crossing points, Taftan-Mirjaveh and Mand-Pishin, are situated in the Baluchistan region, characterized by a diverse tribal composition on both sides of the border. Baloch tribes often extend beyond international borders, with families having relatives on both sides of the Iran-Pakistan border. Tribal dynamics play a crucial role in shaping social structures, and tribal elders hold influence over local communities.


Taftan-Mirjaveh


In the Taftan-Mirjaveh region on the Iranian side, the primary inhabitants are Baloch tribes, with prominent groups including the Rigi, Gichki, and others. On the Pakistani side, the Baluchistan region is home to various Baloch tribes such as the Bugti, Marris, Mengals, each with distinct identities and customs.


Mand-Pishin


In the Mand-Pishin region on the Iranian side, the population is predominantly comprised of Baloch tribes. On the Pakistani side, the region is characterized by a significant Baloch population, with various tribes contributing to the ethnic mosaic of the area.


Border Trade


Iran and Pakistan engage in diverse trade activities through the above border crossings. The traded goods encompass a range of products, such as food and agricultural items like fruits and vegetables, petroleum products from Iran's significant oil and gas industry, minerals, and metals including iron ore and copper, textiles and garments, machinery and industrial equipment, chemicals and petrochemicals, consumer goods such as electronics and household items, livestock and dairy products, and construction materials like cement and steel. Additionally, cross-border services, including transportation and logistics, contribute to the economic exchange between the two nations. 


Deployment of Forces


These borders are secured by the Islamic Republic of Iran Border Guard Command (NAJA) on the Iranian side. NAJA, a branch of the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is responsible for maintaining security along Iran's borders. On the Pakistani side, the Frontier Corps (FC), a paramilitary force with different units in various provinces, including the Baluchistan Frontier Corps, plays a pivotal role in border security. Additionally, Pakistan Rangers and other law enforcement agencies, such as Customs and the Pakistan Coast Guards, contribute to monitoring and securing the border, with a focus on preventing illegal activities and maintaining stability in the region. Collaborative efforts between the border security forces of Iran and Pakistan are essential for addressing common challenges and ensuring effective border management. 


Major Population Centers


The Iran-Pakistan border region is characterized by smaller towns and villages rather than large cities, reflecting the arid and challenging terrain of the Baluchistan region. On the Iranian side, Mirjaveh stands out as a notable town near the border, while Zahedan, a larger city in the province of Sistani and Baluchistan, serves as a regional hub. In Pakistan, Taftan is a key town along the border, functioning as an important border crossing point. Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, is a more significant urban center, while Chagai, although not densely populated, gains prominence due to its proximity to the border and historical significance related to nuclear testing in the Chagai Hills. The dispersed population in the Baluchistan region makes smaller towns essential focal points in the border landscape.


Crime 


Some general trends and challenges associated with the broader region include:-


Smuggling-The porous and challenging terrain of the border regions facilitates smuggling activities. Goods, narcotics, and even people may be smuggled across the border, contributing to illegal trade networks.


Clashes-Tribal dynamics in the Baluchistan region can sometimes lead to inter-tribal conflicts and disputes. These conflicts may involve issues related to resources, territory, or historical grievances.


Insurgency and Militancy-Parts of the Baluchistan region have witnessed insurgent activities and militancy. Various groups, with different political and separatist objectives, have been involved in armed conflicts, posing security challenges in the area.


Kidnappings-Kidnappings for ransom, often targeting locals or travelers passing through the region, have been reported. Criminal groups exploit the remote and less-policed areas for such activities.


Border Security Challenges-The vast and sparsely populated nature of the border region poses challenges for effective border control. This contributes to the movement of unauthorized individuals and goods.


Human Trafficking-Given the proximity to the border, human trafficking networks operate in the region. Migrants and refugees, seeking to cross borders for various reasons, may fall prey to such activities.


Arms Trafficking-The region's history of conflicts and geopolitical tensions contribute to the illegal trade of arms, potentially affecting local security.


Natural Resource-related Crimes-Illegal activities related to natural resources, such as smuggling of minerals or unregulated fishing, occur in the border areas.


Insurgency and Militancy


The Baluchistan region, has been a historical hotspot for insurgency and militant activities, fueled by various factors such as ethno-nationalist sentiments, sectarian tensions, and geopolitical dynamics. Specific groups and movements have played significant roles in this complex security landscape. Shia communities in Pakistan, including Baluchistan, face challenges related to violence and discrimination. Some groups include:-


Jundallah (People's Resistance Movement of Iran)


Jundallah, a Sunni militant organization, active in the Sistani and Baluchistan province of Iran. It emerged in response to perceived discrimination against Sunni Baloch people by the Iranian government. Jundallah carried out numerous attacks against Iranian security forces and civilians, seeking redress for grievances related to religious and ethnic disparities. The group sought to address what it perceived as discrimination against Sunni Baloch people by the Iranian government.


Jaish al-Adl (Iran)


Jaish al-Adl, also known as the Army of Justice and referred to as Jaish al-Dhulm in Iran, is a Sunni militant organization operating in the border regions of Iran, particularly in Sistan and Baluchistan. Its roots trace back to Jundallah, a larger Sunni militant group, which splintered in 2010 following the execution of its leader by the Iranian government, according to information from the US National Counterterrorism Center.


Founded in 2012 in the border areas between Pakistan and Iran, Jaish al-Adl's leadership remains mostly undisclosed, although there is widespread belief that Mullah Omar Irani played a significant role in its establishment. The group gained international attention in October 2013 when a roadside bomb in Saravan claimed the lives of 13 Revolutionary Guards.


In February 2014, Jaish al-Adl heightened tensions between Iran and Pakistan by kidnapping four Iranian soldiers and reportedly taking them into Pakistani territory. This incident led to accusations from Iran, blaming Pakistan for insufficient control over cross-border infiltration. Iran went as far as threatening to deploy troops into Pakistan if the soldiers were not released. Eventually, the soldiers were freed in April 2014.


The group's confrontations with Iranian authorities continued in October 2014, resulting in a failed attack that led to the deaths of four Iranian security forces members in Saravan. In response, Brigadier General Hussein Salami of Saravan warned of potential military intervention into Pakistan if Jaish al-Adl's activities were not curtailed.


Known for its attacks against Iranian security forces and involvement in the abduction of Iranian border guards, Jaish al-Adl, akin to Jundallah, purports to address perceived injustices against the Sunni population in the region. The group frequently targets Iranian security personnel, government officials, and Shia civilians, contributing to the complex dynamics of the region's security landscape.


Baloch Separatist Groups (Pak)


In Pakistan's Baluchistan province, a complex landscape of Baloch separatist groups has emerged, each fervently advocating for increased autonomy or complete independence. Prominent among these entities are the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), Baluchistan Liberation Front (BLF), and Baloch Republican Army (BRA). These groups, deeply rooted in Sunni Baloch nationalism, articulate their insurgency as a response to economic grievances and the perceived exploitation of the region's abundant natural resources.


The Baloch separatists contend that their struggle is essential to address longstanding concerns related to economic disparities and resource mismanagement. Their insurgency, marked by sporadic but intense episodes of conflict, underscores the deeply ingrained historical and socio-economic tensions in the region.


A noteworthy incident amplifying regional complexities unfolded in March 2016 when Pakistan accused Iran of harboring Baloch separatists involved in the insurgency. This accusation coincided with the arrest of Kulbushan Jadhav, a retired Indian navy officer, in the Mashkel area of Balochistan, situated near the Iranian border. This event added a geopolitical dimension to the already intricate dynamics of the Baluchistan province, highlighting the interplay of regional actors in the complex tapestry of Baloch separatism.


Taliban and Other Militant Networks (Pak)


Parts of Baluchistan in Pakistan have been used by factions of the Afghan Taliban and other militant networks as safe havens. The Afghan Taliban has historically maintained a presence in the region, utilizing the border areas for logistical support and strategic depth. The Taliban, which has a historical presence in parts of Baluchistan, adheres to Sunni Islam. 


Islamic State (IS) Presence (Pak)


While the overall influence of the Islamic State (IS) in Baluchistan may be limited, the group has claimed responsibility for certain attacks in the region. The complex security environment, coupled with ethnic and sectarian fault lines, creates conditions conducive for the presence of such transnational extremist groups. The IS, while not exclusive to Sunni Islam, has predominantly drawn support from Sunni extremist elements. 


Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)(Pak)


Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni extremist group, has been active in various parts of Pakistan, including Baluchistan. The group has a history of engaging in sectarian violence, targeting Shia communities and security forces.


Al-Qaeda Affiliated Groups (Pak)


Al-Qaeda affiliated groups have, at times, sought refuge in the border regions of Baluchistan, exploiting the vast and rugged terrain for operational purposes.


Historical Reasons Conflict between Pakistan and Iran


  • Pakistan and Iran have occasionally found themselves on different sides of regional alliances. For example, Pakistan's close ties with Saudi Arabia and its participation in Saudi-led military coalitions have been a source of concern for Iran. Additionally, Iran's relations with India, could influence its perceptions of Pakistan.

  • Both Pakistan and Iran have significant Shia Muslim populations. Tensions between Shia and Sunni communities within each country have sometimes spill over into bilateral relations.

  • The situation in Afghanistan and the involvement of both Pakistan and Iran in Afghan affairs impact their bilateral relationship. Differences in their approaches to regional stability and influence in Afghanistan can lead to tensions.


The Present Conflict


Pakistan is majority Sunni while Iran is largely Shia. Iran accused Pakistan of harboring Jaish al-Adl, group responsible for attacks on Iranian soil. Pakistan countered with similar claims, pointing to Iranian support for Baloch separatists within its borders. Pakistan and Iran have both conducted strikes on each other’s territories in an unprecedented escalation of hostilities. Iran conducted missile strike on Pakistan’s Sabz Koh, Panjgur district, Baluchistan province on 16 January 2024, Pakistan targeted separatist groups in Iran’s (Siestan-o-Baluchistan) Sistani and Baluchistan province the day after. 


Previously, Iran initiated a series of rocket attacks targeting border towns in Pakistan, notably launching a barrage of rockets into Panjgur in July 2017. In a significant development in June 2017, the Foreign Office officially acknowledged that the Pakistan Air Force had successfully intercepted and shot down an Iranian drone within the Panjgur territory. Adding to the complexity, in July 2019, Pakistani forces seized an Iranian spy drone in Chagai, intensifying the bilateral blame game.


Reason- Iran has accused Jaish al-Adl militants of storming a police station in Rask, Sistani and Baluchistan on December 15, 2023, resulting in the death of 11 Iranian police officers. Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for other attacks on military in Sistani and Baluchistan in May- June 2023. In 2019, the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing targeting a bus carrying members of the Iranian military, resulting in at least 23 deaths in Sistani-BaluchistanIn. Additionally, 2015, Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for an attack that killed eight Iranian border guards, with militants reportedly crossing into Iran from Pakistan.


Conclusion


With Israel's ongoing military action against Iran-sponsored Hezbollah, and considering Iran's perceived alignment with Russia's actions in Ukraine, a complex web of religious, ethnic, and geopolitical tensions has emerged between Pakistan and Iran. The predominantly Sunni population in Pakistan and the largely Shia population in Iran contribute significantly to religious tensions. The alleged support or harboring of militant groups by each country further exacerbates these tensions.


The involvement of groups like Jaish al-Adl, which Iran accuses Pakistan of harboring, and counterclaims by Pakistan regarding Iranian support for Baloch separatists, intensifies the conflict. Attacks on each other's territories and Jaish al-Adl's claims of responsibility for attacks in Iran escalate the situation further. Iran's missile strikes on Pakistan's Balochistan province and subsequent targeting of separatist groups by Pakistan in Iran's Sistan and Baluchestan province indicate a dangerous escalation of hostilities. Border disputes and cross-border attacks contribute to a volatile situation.


Historical context, such as previous attacks by Jaish al-Adl on Iranian soil with alleged links to Pakistan, adds fuel to the fire. Past grievances and unaddressed issues contribute to a cycle of violence and retaliation. Both Pakistan and Iran perceive each other's actions as threats to their national security, leading to a defensive stance and a willingness to use military force.

The absence of effective diplomatic channels or a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue between the two nations allows the situation to escalate into open hostilities.


Published by


Amit Sharma

Proprietor @ ASSA | Leadership, Security Management and Vigilance


The complex web of religious, ethnic, and geopolitical tensions between Pakistan and Iran has escalated into open hostilities. With ongoing military action against Iran-sponsored Hezbollah and Iran's perceived alignment with Russia's actions in Ukraine, the predominantly Sunni population in Pakistan and the largely Shia population in Iran contribute significantly to religious tensions. The alleged support or harboring of militant groups by each country further heighten these tensions. Groups like Jaish al-Adl intensify the conflict, with Iran accusing Pakistan of harboring them and Pakistan counterclaiming Iranian support for Baloch separatists. Border disputes and cross-border attacks contribute to a volatile situation. The absence of effective diplomatic channels or a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue between the two nations allows the situation to escalate. Historical context, such as previous attacks by Jaish al-Adl on Iranian soil with alleged links to Pakistan, adds fuel to the fire. Past grievances and unaddressed issues contribute to a cycle of violence and retaliation. Both Pakistan and Iran perceive each other's actions as threats to their national security, leading to a defensive stance and a willingness to use military force. 


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