Iran-Pakistan Ties Challenged by Regional Violence

by Fatemeh Aman

Escalating violence against the Islamic Republic of Iran from the volatile region of Baluchistan shows that Tehran’s approach toward regional insurgency may require revision.

A suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Iranian consulate in Peshawar in northwest Pakistan on February 24, killing two security guards and wounding dozens. A Pakistani Taliban group claimed responsibility and vowed more attacks on Iranian installations “everywhere.”

Iran’s approach to dealing with insurgency in its Baluchistan province, primarily based on militarizing the region and blaming foreign countries, could prove ineffective in decreasing tension and threaten its solid relationship with Pakistan. Just last week, in response to the hostage-taking of Iranian border guards by a terrorist group, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahimi Fazli stated that Iranian security forces reserve the option of entering Pakistani territory should Islamabad fail to secure its border with Iran.

In the past, Taliban, Wahabis, the United States, and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly been blamed by the Iranians for promoting unrest and insurgency in Baluchistan, including for the killing of 12 people in Iran’s Kerman province in May 2006 and 14 Iranian border guards in October 2013.

There have been occasions where Iran has blamed “elements” within Pakistan’s security forces or the “shortcomings” of the Islamabad government for not doing enough to prevent insurgents from entering Iranian territory. Yet Iran has avoided directly blaming the Pakistani government for the violence at its border.

Now, however, recent threats by the Iranian government to enter Pakistani territory are unprecedented and seem at odds with Iran’s past approach towards Pakistan.

Border instability

In March 2013, Iran and Pakistan reached a security agreement aimed at combating terrorism and drug trafficking, which was signed by then Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar and his Pakistani counterpart, Rehman Malik. The content of the agreement, which is being discussed now in Iran’s parliament, is not public. However, Interior Minister Rahimi Fazli claims that once approved, Iranian armed forces will be able to enter Pakistani territory.

Baluchistan, the neighboring province between Iran and Pakistan, is prone to political turmoil.

In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran provided Pakistan full military and financial support in a crack-down on Baluchi separatists. Iran and Pakistan have been cooperating and exchanging intelligence on border security issues for decades.

However, the Pakistani region of Baluchistan is now more insecure. Iranian Baluchistan is also volatile but largely under the control of the central government. The region has served as a major path of drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Iran, and from Iran extending to Europe.

Diesel smuggling has for decades been part of illicit trade in the Iran-Pakistan border region. However, Iran’s declining currency, due to sanctions, has turned fuel smuggling into a broad and organized network. At the same time, drug addiction is becoming Iran’s number one social issue and has forced the Iranian government to take stronger measures to combat drug trafficking.

Iranian Baluchi Sunni militants, who are believed to share ties with Pakistani Baluchis, have conducted several violent operations in the past including a suicide bombing in 2010 that killed dozens of people at a Shia mosque, the killing of a clergy member from the Iranian Supreme Leader’s Office in Baluchistan, the abduction and killing of hostages, and attacks against security force posts.

Tehran’s violent response to ethnic tension in Baluchistan includes the hanging of Baluchi prisoners. Most recently, 16 prisoners were hanged in retaliation for the killing of 14 Iranian border guards on October 25 of last year, for which the little-known Sunni group Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility.

It is noteworthy that Iran, while continuing its violent crackdown on Baluchi militants, has avoided playing the ethnic card inside Pakistan. The government has primarily blamed the West and the United States, the Saudis, and occasionally the “Pakistani army and ISI,” but never attempted to organize armed groups against the Pakistani government. Iran, in desperate need of stability in its Baluchistan, is well aware that induced tension would have a destabilizing impact on both “twin provinces.”

In 2007, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) started building a barrier along Iran’s border with Pakistan. The multi-million dollar project, which includes a 91.4 cm thick and 3.05m tall concrete wall, large earth and stone dams, and deep ditches, is expected to be completed by September 2014. According to Rahmani Fazli, except for 300 kilometers of Iran’s border with Pakistan in the Saravan region, the entire Eastern border has been secured and the possibility of insurgents entering Iranian territory is “almost” zero.

Ethnic tension

It is possible that the border project, once finished, will reduce trafficking and illegal crossings at the border. However, a modern border isn’t enough to make the ethnic tensions inside Iran disappear. The Islamic Republic and the Shia-centric government of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made little effort to fill the gap between the central government and the Sunni population, especially in the deprived region of Baluchistan. Instead, Ahmadinejad’s government and the IRGC militarized the region and alienated the Baluchi population.

President Hassan Rouhani, who in June 2013 replaced Ahmadinejad, won the majority of votes in the Sistan and Baluchistan province. Molavi Abdolhamid, a popular and well-respected Sunni Friday prayer leader of the city of Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchistan, met with Rouhani in June of last year urging him to appoint Sunnis to the cabinet level. It did not happen. However, the Rouhani administration, at least verbally, has taken early steps to narrow the gap between the Baluchi population and the central government.

Interestingly, some of the first calls against violence in the region, including against the killing of Iranian border guards in October, are always issued by Sunni Baluchi leaders. In a statement, Molavi Abdolhamid condemned the killing and warned that violence is harming the interests of the Baluchi population.

There are differences within the Iranian establishment on how to deal with ethnic challenges. But instead of blaming foreign countries for creating these tensions, which may very well be true, Tehran needs to accept responsibility and take reasonable steps to win the hearts of its minorities.

At the same time, Iran appears keen on maintaining a cordial relationship with Pakistan. Just this month, Rouhani told Pakistan’s new ambassador to the Islamic Republic that “Iran is ready to expand its political and economic relations with Pakistan.”

In response, the ambassador, Noor Muhammad Jadmani, announced that PM Nawaz Sharif is planning to travel to Iran. Meanwhile Iranian Parliament Speaker, Ali Larijani, told the Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Syed Nayyer Hussain Bokhari on February 19 that “recent terrorist attacks will not have an impact on the friendly relations between Iran and Pakistan.”

In the midst of the ongoing negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program, which have made surrounding Arab countries nervous, Iran needs friendly relations with non-Arab regional states more than ever. Alienating a neighbour as important as Pakistan is the last thing it should do. In fact, the viable path to a more stable region may include empowering Baluchistan to isolate extremists.

Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on August 3, 2013.

Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).



  1. Iran has always been a multi-ethnic multicultural nation, often with a centralized system of government neglecting/marginalizing its ethnic minorities, failing to realize that having a genuine ‘sense of belonging’ is an ‘essential’ prerequisite for patriotism, cooperation and a genuine respect for the laws. The prevalent misconception being that a prosperous ethnic minority would be vulnerable to the outside influences and may break away, hence the recurrent ‘dependency’ policy.

    The dependency policy is counterproductive since Iran’s ethnic minorities would feel themselves more as ‘integral’ parts of their country when they live in a ‘prosperous’ Kurdish, Baluchi or Arab region, when treated with more love and respect and guaranteed the same equal opportunities (in terms of employment, political participation and linguistic freedom), and are provided with the same ‘infrastructures’ that the majority enjoy in Iran’s major cities.

    The ethnic minorities would have a stronger sense of belonging, patriotism and responsibility when they can merge and realize they now are ‘active participants’ in the ‘development’ of their country, rather than feeling ‘neglected’, ‘distrusted’ and ‘marginalized’ as less than second class citizens! There will be a better coordination and more respect for the sovereign authority and legislation – a precondition to an ‘effective’ governance – when the ethnic minorities are treated with dignity.

    Along with the ‘dependency’ policy the authorities need to consider the fact that consenting to the laws out of love and respect is entirely different from conformity out of fear which often leads to resentment and hostility. And that, as within a family, cohesion, mutual trust and a greater coordination between the ruled and the rulers are inconceivable without love, dialogue, care, close interaction, participation and mutual understanding. No outside Power can undermine the cohesiveness of a united community, unless it is a united community of alienated individuals/groups, without a strong sense of belonging as the integral members of the whole community.

  2. @khosrow:
    Unfortunately the problem is not as you put it, that Iran neglects its ethnic minorities. On the contrary all ethnic minorities in Iran have always enjoyed much better conditions that any other country in the Middle East. The problem is and has always been that some of the areas in which these minorities live in have vast reserves of valuable minerals and foreign forces have always encouraged both separatism and ethnic conflict in order to gain easy access to these reserves. Iran also lives in a rough neighborhood. There are always unstable regimes, hostile foreign forces and wars on Iran’s borders (certainly in the last 300 years).
    For example, the present Baluchi problem can be seen in three different lights.
    One: as an extension of the Wahabbi inspired violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan pouring into Iran.
    Two: as an attempt by the west and her allies to put pressure on the Iranian regime (after all the same guys who supported Sadam for eight years didn’t just give up and go home!).
    Three: as an attempt to gain access to the vast reserves of coal that was discovered back in the 70s in that province. Interestingly the date of Baluchi separatist movement coincides almost to the day with the discovery of the coal reserves in that province.
    However under the Shah (in the 70s) the first two factors above were not really there to as great an extent as they are now. As a result the problem was not as bad.
    Another issue is the massive drug smuggling problem which in scale dwarfs that of Latin America. The drugs come from Afghanistan and Pakistan and are shipped through Iran. They smugglers have the motive, means and the opportunity to arm and finance the local thugs to create as much violence and mayhem as possible. This will in turn create ungovernable areas in all countries in which they can operate. The FARC in Colombia are an example of this.

  3. @Se1:
    You make valid points. However, to what extent the outside forces can infiltrate in our country wholly depends on how vulnerable we are. It will be naive to conclude that the aim of the Zionists’ ongoing covert operations inside Iran, for instance training and arming the Kurds to attack Iran’s Kurdish region, which first Seymour Hersh reported in 2003, is to control that regions’ natural resources: they manipulate and exploit the disaffected Iranian Kurds’ financial and emotional ‘vulnerability’, just as they did with certain sectors of the Iraqi Kurds. The same applies to the Baluchistan region. Regarding the drug trafficking, as you’ve mentioned Columbia’s drug trafficking, no drug cartel or traffickers would have lasted in Columbia had it not been for the poor families who end up working in their plantations or as operatives – not to mention the US great drug market. Poverty and emotional vulnerability are the main causes, be it in Colombia or in Baluchistan. Hence, the closer the interaction between the central government and the ethnic minorities living in our border towns, and better infrastructure, employment opportunities and more civil liberties, the more the minorities’ ‘sense of belonging’ and the less successful the enemy’s infiltration; also the less the brain drain – as you may know we have the highest brain drain in the world. Thank you again for your kind comments.

  4. I fully agree Khosrow, solid points made. Marginalization and disinfranchisment are the breeding ground for radicalization. If Irans central was more respectful n inclusive towards its minority the so called foreign forces wouldn’t be able to have such strong influence. It’s not enough to say minorities get treated better in Iran than other ME countries, thats not much of a comparison, comparing ourselves to countries were rascism is instituitionalized and the norm is not the way to go…..

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