Iran and Pakistan appear to be on a collision course that will in all likelihood leave relations severely strained in the years ahead.
The most visible sign of strain in the bilateral relationship is also in many ways the least serious. Specifically, as my colleague Ankit noted, last month five Iranian border guards in Iran’s Sistan Baluchistan region were kidnapped by the Iran-based Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice). However, according to the Iranian government, they were then brought to Pakistan and are being held in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
In the immediate aftermath of the kidnappings, the Iranian government expressed indignation at the Pakistan government for its failure to do more to curb the tide of Sunni Islamists in the country. Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli went so far as to threaten to send Iranian troops into Pakistan to secure the border guards’ release.
This prompted Islamabad to respond by saying, “Iranian forces have no authority to cross our borders in violation of the international law. We must respect each other’s borders.” It also added, “The government of Pakistan regrets the suggestions of negligence on its part over the incident, especially when Pakistan’s active support against terrorists groups in the past is well-known and acknowledged by Iran.”
Tensions have largely subsided since then, however, even though the five border guards remain in captivity. Last week an Iranian spokesperson said: “Based on the information available, all abducted Iranian border guards are in good health.” Other Iranian officials confirmed that they were engaged in talks with Pakistani officials to secure the border guards’ release, and Tehran has said it hopes to return them to their families in the near future. Still, tensions over the border region will continue to periodically spark crises between Pakistan and Iran for the indefinite future.
A more serious flashpoint between Pakistan and Iran is taking place farther away in Syria. Specifically, numerous media outlets and private intelligence firms have confirmed that recent Pakistani-Saudi Arabian defense cooperation meetings have been aimed at reaching an agreement whereby Riyadh would purchase military arms from Islamabad for Syrian opposition forces. According to the reports, Saudi funds will be used to purchase Chinese shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles—among other weapons—that will be smuggled into Syria via Jordan.
Such a deal would place Pakistan and Iran closer to direct confrontation as Iranian troops and their Hezbollah allies have long been operating in Syria in an effort to shore up the Bashar al-Assad government. Should Pakistani supplied arms bring down an Iranian transport plane, for example, Tehran would be hard pressed not to retaliate against Pakistan in some fashion.
Besides being a potentially far more dangerous flashpoint, the dispute over Syria is likely to persist for two reasons. First, the Syrian civil war is unlikely to subside anytime soon. Certainly, it looks to continue long after the dispute over the border guards has run its course. Additionally, the Pakistani-Iranian collision course in Syria is in many ways a microcosm of the larger problems over Pakistan’s support for Saudi Arabia and Iran’s reaction to it. As Saudi Arabia and Iran’s longstanding rivalry likely intensifies in the coming years, Tehran is almost certain to become more concerned about Islamabad’s ties with Riyadh. This trianglular relationship is likely to have interesting implications for some of the world’s major powers, among them the United States, China and India. It’s one reason, among many, why Iran and China are likely to clash in the coming years and decades.
One battleground where this trianglular relationship in general, and the Pakistani-Iranian rivalry in particular, is likely to play itself out in the near future is Afghanistan. As Ankit and I discuss in some detail on the podcast this week, the withdrawal of NATO combat forces this year is likely to prompt regional powers like Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia to assert themselves in Kabul.
Pakistan and Iran have nearly diametrically opposed interests in Afghanistan, which will make it a prime contender for the biggest flashpoint in the bilateral relationship in the coming years. And Saudi Arabia and India will also be right in the middle of this flashpoint. China might also find itself getting pulled in as well.