Iran and Pakistan’s shared crisis in Baluchistan
- January 18, 2024
- Suzanne Raine
- Themes: Geopolitics, Iran, Pakistan
Pakistan and Iran are both engaged in a struggle against separatist militants in the shared region of Baluchistan. Recent airstrikes in each other's territory have brought the nations closer to a conflict few predicted.
On Tuesday 16 January, Iran’s semi-official news agency Tasnim reported that Iran had fired a combination of missiles and drones on houses in the village of Koh-e-Sabz near the border town of Panjgur in the Baluchistan region of Pakistan, aiming at two key strongholds of the Baluch separatist group Jaish Al-Adl (Army of Justice).
Koh-e-Sabz (Green Mountain) is known to be the home of Jaish Al-Adl’s former second-in-command, who was killed in a clash with Iranian forces in 2018. Authorities in Baluchistan have reported that the strikes killed two children. Two days later Pakistan responded with strikes around the city of Saravan in Iran, in what it has named Operation Marg Bar Sarmachar (Death to Fighters), also reportedly targeting Baluch separatists and killing nine. These strikes are being conflated with other hostilities in the Middle East; while they may signal increased nervousness and the exacerbation of tensions, they are separate and part of a much older friction.
In Davos, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said the Iranian strikes were in response to an attack by Jaish Al-Adl on a police station in Rask, a small city in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in south-eastern Iran, on 15 December which killed 11 police officers and wounded seven. Large explosions and gunfire were heard at the police station, and the fighting continued for five hours; the attack was claimed by the group on Telegram before it was reported in the media. It was their second attack in 2023. In July they attacked a police station in Zahedan, the provincial capital, and killed two. Jaish Al-Adl had said that these attacks were, in turn, a response to the suppression of protests by the Iranian authorities in 2022, including a massacre of around 90 civilians on 30 September, which became known as ‘Black Friday’. Sistan-Baluchistan is an unhappy province.
In the immediate term, these fresh hostilities put both spotlight and stress on the relationship between Pakistan and Iran. A press release from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and warned of ‘serious consequences’, lamenting that ‘this illegal act has taken place despite the existence of several channels of communication between Pakistan and Iran’. A few hours earlier, at Davos, Amir-Abdollahian had called for closer interaction and determined effort to counter terrorist threats in a meeting with the caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan, Anwaar ul Haq Kakar. Iran’s Interior Minister Ahmed Vahidi had already criticised Pakistan’s border security measures; the attack brought the number of Iranian law enforcement personnel killed on duty by various groups in the previous nine months to 72. Now Kakar is on his way home and Pakistani official statements echo Iran’s 48 hours earlier. Beyond this public outrage, and despite long-standing mistrust between the neighbours, neither country has an interest in an escalation of conflict against the Baluch separatists. Both countries are accused of human rights violations against the Baluch, and neither can afford to divert too many resources away from other conflicts towards increased tensions with each other.
Who is to blame? Jaish Al-Adl is a Sunni Baluch group fighting for Sunni rights in south-eastern Iran and for an independent Baluchistan. They were formed in 2012 and, since then, have been conducting terrorist operations mainly in Sistan-Baluchistan. As Sunni separatists in Iran, they join the geopolitical tangle of alliances in the region: they share an agenda with other Sunni groups and with Iranian Kurdish separatist groups and are seen by Iranians as being supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US. As usual, these claims are difficult to substantiate. As a terrorist group, they are effective and have been so for a sustained period. Their first attack came in 2012 and killed ten members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Since then they have conducted multiple successful attacks against Iranian border guards, local prosecutors, security forces, police and IRGC, a durability that is especially striking given the nature of the Iranian regime.
In 2018, 12 security personnel, including Revolutionary Guards, were abducted at a border post in the city of Mirjaveh in Sistan-Baluchistan and taken to Pakistan; the final two were not returned home until 2021. Relations with Pakistan at that time became difficult but the public messaging included indications of co-operation. Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement that: ‘Both militaries, under a joint mechanism established since last year, are working to ascertain the whereabouts of Iranian guards’, and Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, the head of the IRGC ground forces, said Iran was ready to conduct ‘joint military operations with Pakistan against the militant groups to release the kidnapped personnel’.
The problem is that the attacks continued. In December 2018, a suicide bombing in the port city of Charbahar killed four police officers and wounded 42. On 13 February 2019, Jaish Al-Adl claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on a bus carrying IRGC personnel in Sistan-Baluchistan, which killed 27. Iran threatened Pakistan with extra-territorial action, with the then IRGC Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari saying Islamabad should go after the armed group right away before Tehran takes its ‘revenge’. ‘If Pakistan fails to punish them in the near future, Iran will do so based on international law and will retaliate against the terrorists,’ Jafari was quoted as saying by the Iranian media.
Is Pakistan providing safe havens for Baluchi militants? Or is it just failing in the very difficult task of securing the border? Pakistan has become the master of dealing with the ambiguity between those two possible explanations. The 1,000 km-long border between Iran and Pakistan cuts through Baluchistan, which straddles the two countries and also the south-west of Afghanistan. The issue of Baluch independence and identity is not a new one. Writing in 1911, Arnold Keppel, soldier and Conservative MP, observed that: ‘It is well known that the Baluchis have no love for the Persians, and have for years succeeded in evading payment of all revenue, in spite of the periodical expeditions sent to collect it by the Governor-General of Kerman, under whose nominal jurisdiction this district lies.’
The ‘tri-border area’ – where Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan meet – is a lawless desert long known for smuggling of drugs, people and guns. In times of British India, guns were run up the Makran Coast from Muscat, and delivered to Baluchi tribes who then passed them on to the North-West Frontier and Afghanistan. It is now the route by which people move from Afghanistan through the Middle East to Europe and back again – both refugees and terrorists. It is also rich in natural resources, such as gold, copper, coal, oil and natural gas. Who gets these resources – if anyone can – is contested.
Pakistan is also engaged in a violent struggle with Baluch separatists. Since the state’s foundation, it has had to contend with Baluch insurgencies. The Khan of Kalat, and ruler of most of Baluchistan, had no intention of allowing Baluchistan to become part of Pakistan during the partition of India in 1947, but in a swift move by Jinnah he was arrested and the Pakistani army took control of the territory (it makes up 40 per cent of Pakistan’s land mass, although it is sparsely populated). The most recent unrest began in 2003. In 2006 the 79-year-old veteran Baluch nationalist leader and former Chief Minister of Baluchistan, Nawab Bugti, was killed in a shoot-out alongside 37 of his tribal militia, having been in hiding in the hills; 21 Pakistani security personnel were also killed in the fierce clashes. Bugti was the force behind the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), designated a terrorist organisation by Pakistan, the UK and the US.
Since 2004 the BLA has claimed responsibility for a number of gun and bomb attacks on security forces, government installations and innocent civilians, especially those settled in Balochistan from other provinces. It has been active in targeting Chinese workers, and in August 2023 it claimed responsibility for an attack on a convoy of vehicles carrying 23 Chinese engineers in the southern coastal city of Gawadar, where China is building a somewhat ill-fated seaport for Pakistan. But the BLA is one of several separate Baluch groups, which are notoriously divided; alongside them, there is the Baluch Liberation Front (BLF), the Baluch Republican Army, and the United Baluch Army among others. Between them, the various groups carried out 71 terrorist attacks in Baluchistan in 2021 alone; this tempo of violence is normal. In December the possible merger of the BLA and BLF was reported. Pakistan is accused of arrests, assassinations, mistreatment and repression of Baluch activists.
If Baluchi separatists are an intractable problem both for Iran and for Pakistan, they are also a geopolitical problem. Pakistan has long accused India of supporting Baluchi separatist movements. Iran accuses both Israel and Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorist groups operating within Iran. Cultural as well as geographic contiguity also brings geopolitical guilt by association: the UK’s close links with Pakistan bring with it the issue of Baluch separatists in London. The head of the Free Baluchistan Movement, Hyrbyair Marri, is resident in the UK. His presence in London is a source of considerable friction with Pakistan, which alleges that he is a member of the BLA. In 2007 he was charged in Westminster Magistrates Court with inciting terrorism offences in Pakistan and acquitted. In 2011 he applied for asylum in the UK, saying that his life was at risk if he was returned to Pakistan, and this was granted. Pakistan continues to ask the UK to take action against activities by Baluch separatists. Other countries with resident Baluch oppositionists, such as Sweden and Oman, have similar problems.
Baluchi separatists are not the only groups to conduct terrorist attacks in Iran. In 2018 gunmen killed 29 at a military parade in south-western Iran, almost half of them Revolutionary Guards. That was blamed (by Iran) on Arab Jihadist groups, and Daesh also claimed the attack. On 3 January 2024 in Kerman, the neighbouring province to Sistan-Baluchistan, two suicide bombers attacked a ceremony commemorating IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani killing 94. That attack was claimed by Daesh-Khorasan Province, the Afghan branch of the global Jihadi movement. There is no indication of any connection between Daesh and the Baluch separatist groups. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry alleged that the attackers had come to Iran from Afghanistan via Baluchistan, but this is the normal route.
Iran’s other separatist problem, Kurdish nationalists, is an unconnected additional complication: Israel is known to have close relations with Kurdish groups (indeed, Israel was one of the few states to support the Kurdish independence referendum with Prime Minister Netanyahu saying in September 2017 that ‘Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state’). Iran will be nervous about its own ability to contain these threats, which explains the action.
The common factor is that separatist movements, which were bequeathed to this generation by the decisions of earlier generations on state boundaries, continue to offer opportunities for the exploitation of grievances and vulnerabilities by geopolitical foes. The extent of support by one state for a group that conducts terrorist attacks in another state is often impossible to prove, and the bigger risk is that the absence of proof allows for assumptions that become the basis for retaliatory actions. In the case of acts of terrorism conducted by Baluch groups, whether in Iran or in Pakistan, short of concessions to the separatists there is no realistic chance of a reduction in violence unless there is collaboration between Iran and Pakistan, although this may only be achieved through more repressive measures against the Baluch.