The killing of Qassem Soleimani at the beginning of 2020 created uncertainty over Iran’s role not only in the Middle East, but in South Asia as well. As the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) — the unit responsible for external military and covert operations — Soleimani extensively increased Iran’s sphere of influence in the region.
Pakistan, for its part, expressed “deep concern” over potential rising U.S.-Iran tensions in the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing. Pakistan’s concern is understandable. As Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi stated, geography inexorably links Pakistan’s security with stability in the Middle East. This is particularly the case in relation to Iran, due to the nearly 600 mile border shared with Iran along Pakistan’s Balochistan province. With turbulent Iran-Pakistan strategic relations over the latter’s increasing tilt toward Saudi Arabia, the Balochistan border has also been a site of conflict, with each side lambasting the other for providing sanctuaries to militant groups in their respective provinces.
Soleimani’s death is likely to increase militancy for two reasons. First, his successor, Ismail Qaani, is focused on Iran’s eastern border and on drug cartel movement in the border region. This is highly likely to escalate the tension in the region in the coming years. Second, Baloch Sunni militancy is rearing its head, and Qaani, having been looking after Iran’s priorities in the region, is likely to respond to this trend with more force than his predecessor, Soleimani.
In the end, however, the rising militancy along the border cannot be attributed to either Soleimani or Qaani as individuals. Instead, Iran has increasingly shifted its priorities in the region that makes up its border with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Both Pakistan and Iran have provinces dominated by Baloch ethnic groups: Balochistan in Pakistan and Sistan and Baluchestan province in Iran. Their respective provinces are sparsely populated and undeveloped, which has led to nationalist movements on each side of the border, and security concerns that had once been a source of Pakistan-Iran cooperation. Today, Pakistan is battling the same Baloch nationalism, while similar tendencies in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province have transformed into Sunni militancy directed against the Shia Iranian state.
While Pakistan and Iran historically had shared interests in combating militant groups in Balochistan, today the region has become a space where cross-border militancy can easily aggravate tensions. After a suicide car bombing claimed by the Sunni Baloch militant group Jaish ul-Adl (the “Army of Justice”) killed 27 IRGC members in Sistan and Baluchestan in February 2019, Iran criticized Islamabad for failing to crack down on the group and allowing it to find shelter in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported that Brigadier General Pakpour, a commander of the IRGC, claimed at a ceremony held to honor the victims of the attacks that three of the assailants responsible for the February 23 killings were Pakistani citizens. Iran considers Jaish ul-Adl a proxy of Saudi Arabia and Soleimani at the time lambasted Pakistan, demanding concrete action from Islamabad and blaming Pakistan’s increasingly close connection with Saudi Arabia for the violence.
Pakistan has vehemently denied the charges and offered to cooperate with Iran in investigating the attacks.
Islamabad itself is also concerned about the security situation along its border with Iran, arguing that Iran has harbored militants hostile to Pakistan across the border. Pakistan, for instance, lodged strong protests following the Ormara massacre in Balochistan’s Gwadar district in April 2019, in which 14 people, including members of Pakistan’s security forces, were killed by a group alleged to have trained in Iran. Some reports even suggested the attack was tied to Soleimani as revenge for the earlier bombing that killed IRGC members. The arrest of Kulbhushan Jadhav in 2016 — an Indian naval officer charged with spying in Pakistan — also created uncertainty over the border regions, since by some accounts he entered through Iran.
Rather than shared concerns over militancy uniting the two countries, the blame game has ratcheted up tensions. Iranian forces have fired mortars into remote border towns on the Pakistani side, under the pretext of those towns harboring Sunni Baloch militants. Meanwhile drug traffickers from the border regions have poured into Iran and clashed with Iranian security forces. Over the years, Iran has pressured Pakistani authorities to fence the border, which Pakistan has recently agreed to. However, given the simmering militancy in the region and slow progress on the fence, it is unlikely this will do much to improve the security challenges.
Under Soleimani, the Quds Force’s main concern regarding Pakistan was the recruitment of Pakistani Shias to fight in Syria to protect the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran is said to have increased its footprint in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, as part of its efforts to recruit Pakistan Shias to join the Zainabiyoun Brigade militia group in Syria. These Shia Muslims pass through illegal border points in Balochistan to reach Iran without Islamabad’s knowledge. From there, they would be dispatched to Syria by the IRGC and Quds Force to fight the rebels opposed to Assad’s regime.
However, Soleimani’s successor Ismail Qaani could adopt a very different – and more dangerous — strategy for the region. Qaani has reportedly looked after Iranian priorities in the east, such as drug trafficking in the border region and aiding Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban. Under Qaani’s leadership, the Quds Force is likely to foment trouble not only in Middle East but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This development has serious implications for the security situation in Afghanistan as well as Iran’s relationship with Pakistan.
Qaani, no doubt, will be closely watching militancy in the region. Meanwhile, the Quds Force under his leadership is likely to increase its influence in across its eastern border with Pakistan.
To Iran, the region comprising Iranian Balochistan and the border region with Pakistan and Afghanistan is of high significance. The port town of Chabahar, situated just 72 kilometers from Pakistan’s Gwadar port town in Balochistan, including the strait of Hormuz, is especially important to Iran’s strategic calculations. But the same region is also Iran’s Achilles heel. If militancy escalates, it will likely involve the Baloch Sunni population of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. That is why Iran wants to crush militancy in the border region, and that is going to have repercussions for the whole region.
Under Qaani’s leadership, Iran seems to be pushing its influence in the region. Although the situation is not in Iran’s favor right now, the tide is shifting. Besides Pakistan, Iran’s interests in the area are also intertwined with Afghanistan, and Iran will gain more space once U.S. troops there withdraw. That process is already beginning under a recent U.S.-Taliban peace agreement.
Neither Pakistan nor Iran can afford an environment of escalated tension in the region, which is why it is high time for the two countries to normalize the situation in their backyard. If Pakistan and Iran continue to ignore the situation and get involved in a blame game — as they are doing right now — the situation will get out of hand, inviting a troubled future. If current trends continue, that is going to be the fate of this region.