Imran Khan Resumes Pakistan’s Old Habits

Imran Khan (Awais khan via Shutterstock)

by Shireen T. Hunter    

Two terrorist attacks occurred almost simultaneously, on February 12 and February 14, in Indian-administered Kashmir and in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province. The target of both attacks were military and paramilitary personnel. Jaish Muhammad claimed responsibility for the first, Jaish ul-Adl for the second. These incidents coincided with the visit to Pakistan of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince , Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), thus raising the question of whether the attack in Iran was designed  to please the visiting prince. The attack in India, however, defies this logic, since MbS visited New Delhi on February 19.

Yet, given the fact that MbS has said that he will try to reduce India-Pakistan tensions, there might even be a Saudi angle to the Kashmir attack. Perhaps Saudi Arabia wants to discourage India from cooperating with Iran, especially since  preventing the development of the Chabahar port adds another link to Iran’s chain of economic strangulation. During his visit, MbS promised to invest $ 100 billion in India. Such a substantial investment could seriously cool New Delhi’s enthusiasm for cooperation with Tehran.

Pakistan has denied any involvement in either of the attacks and has challenged both Tehran and New Delhi to offer concrete evidence of its involvement. This, however, is a strange demand, since terrorists rarely leave traces that could link them to their sponsors. However, Iran has captured two Pakistani citizens involved in the operation. The suicide bomber apparently was a Pakistani named Hafiz Muhammad Ali.

Since Iran faces a number of current problems including severe sanctions and other pressures, it will not be able to retaliate against Pakistan. For more than two decades, terrorists based on the Pakistani side of the Pakistan-Iran border have been going into Iran and committing bombings and other atrocities before withdrawing into their hideaways in Pakistan. Iran’s repeated pleas to Pakistan to do more to control its border with Iran have gone unheeded. Pakistan is very skilled in sweet-talking Iran with never-fulfilled promises of better monitoring the common border and punishing perpetrators of terror acts. It has sent delegations ostensibly to look into the matter, knowing full well that Iran would not dare pursue the terrorists into Pakistani territory. Such an action not only would trigger a harsh response from the Pakistani military, which is not exactly fond of Iran, but could also be used as a casus belli by Iran’s other enemies, including Saudi Arabia and even the United States, to attack it.

The latest incident, however, must have been particularly bitter for Iran because it had set such store on new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his promises of improving relations with Tehran. However, Tehran has only itself to blame for this disappointment, for it has ignored Pakistan’s realities and the changes the country has undergone in the last half century as well as its financial dependence on Saudi Arabia. It was clear from the beginning that Imran Khan’s ability to refocus and rebalance Pakistan’s foreign policy was limited. The military determines the broad outlines of Islamabad’s foreign policy, and no prime minister can defy the military brass.

The so-called opening to Iran, meanwhile, was a bargaining tool to scare Riyadh into increasing its financial and other support. Given that Saudi Arabia has already deposited $3 billion in Pakistan’s accounts and has promised an investment package reportedly worth $20 billion, the gambit seems to have paid off.

India, however, is another story. Islamabad cannot count on New Dehli’s passivity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised retaliation over the killing of 44 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir. Pakistan has become sufficiently alarmed to ask the UN secretary general to intervene and prevent the escalation of tensions. If India retaliates against Pakistan, other states, especially America, are unlikely to come to Pakistan’s aid. The United States needs India to balance China. Even China, despite its close relations with Pakistan, would not want to become involved in the dispute. Facing extremism in its Muslim-inhabited regions, Beijing must worry about the influence of Pakistan-based Sunni extremist groups and will recalibrate its ties to Islamabad accordingly. Moreover, China is interested in Iran and does not seek its destabilization.

In the long run, Pakistan cannot take Iran’s passivity for granted either. Thus far, Tehran has not followed a national and realist foreign policy and has counted too much on Islamic bonds in regulating its relations with its neighbors, including Pakistan. But a more pragmatic approach to foreign relations could see closer Iran-India ties, which potentially could limit Pakistan’s ability to act on its eastern front. More importantly, a national and pragmatic foreign policy could end Iran’s current isolation and thus force Pakistan to think twice before committing terrorist acts on the territory of a so-called friendly nation. But as long as Iran’s current conditions and behavior persist, Pakistan and others will continue to take advantage of it at every turn.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. this author says iran has no means to retaliate. Wrong. Hunter ought to read the previous column by Kaveh Afrasibi that shows how.

  2. Ms Hunter, who was born an Irani, must know that Iran first blamed US, Israel and Gulf Kingdoms before adding Pakistan to the list after the Kashmir attack. Her rosy perspective of passive Iran contradicts official US assessment of Iranian activities in the region. Blaming Pakistan for endemic sunni Baluch bombings in Sistan is not a wise strategy for Iran with unfriendly borders on all sides. Iranian Baluchestan has always been a troubled region and will remain so.

    As for Kashmir, a native-born Kashmiri loaded up a local vehicle with locally obtained load of explosives (such big quantity cannot be smuggled across the heavily militarized mountainous LOC) and killed a bunch of Indian soldiers- who are considered occupiers by Kashmiris as was evident by a huge gathering to solemnize the bombers’ funeral. This bomber had been arrested by Indians and apparently released. Now an unknown caller in India claimed it was JEM operation. The Pakistan connection is tenuous for now.

    Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir is 71 years’ and counting but it is hard to imagine it can stop local Kashmiris from killing Indian soldiers with local means.

    But it is open season on Pakistan at some ivory towers as it is helping Trump in Afghanistan.

  3. Extremely childish article from someone desperately trying to connect irrelevant events. I was forced to look up qualifications of the author. And, member of Council on Foreign Relations explained the naive view of international affairs.

  4. The Ayatollahs have managed to not get hit as much as any other regime in the area, because they are the worst perpetuators. But what goes around comes around. It is payback time for the Ayatollahs. Let us hope that secular Iranians do not suffer in the process.

  5. It’s clearly NOT true that Iran “has counted too much on Islamic bonds in regulating its relations with its neighbors”. The Islamic Republic’s decades-long close ties with Armenia and tense relations with Shi’ite majority Azerbaijan contradict Dr. Hunter, not to mention Iran’s ever tighter geo-strategic cooperation with Russia in recent years. Tehran has also famously reached across oceans (bypassing for example Muslim Egypt) to align its foreign policy with Christian majority Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. Obviously the common ideology is not Islam. It’s resistance to neocolonialism and its puppets like the Gulf monarchies.

    I also question Dr. Hunter’s convenient assumption that Pakistan is at this time in some meaningful sense behind the growing cross-border terrorism in Iranian Baluchistan. Iranian policy makers complain about Islamabad’s negligence in the lawless border area, yes, but even they have never accused Pakistan of complicity in Baluchi terrorism. In both countries, Baluchistan has historically been a province resembling the American Wild West. This predates the Reagan-Saudi sponsored rise of Sunni fanaticism in the 1980s and even the 1947 birth of Pakistan.

    As far back as the 1940s and earlier, Iranian gendarmes and troops were predictably ambushed with relative impunity in Baluchistan by militias loyal to Iran-based renegades Gholam Shah and Daad Shah. Ever since then, the main force for the lawlessness has been warlordism and drug profits, not ethnic separatism or Iran’s Gulf enemies.

    If I had to guess, the most I’d say AT THIS TIME, without credible evidence of coherent Pakistani sponsorship, is that the Saudis and Emiratis are encouraging Baluchi terrorism in the province directly and locally, with bribed Pakistani authorities looking the other way. If supporting Baluchi terrorism against Iran is about to become Imran Khan’s or the Pakistani military’s covert policy now, Dr. Hunter should reveal some investigative or leaked evidence, not just assume a stepped up collusion at top Pakistani echelons.

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