It is increasingly apparent that all is not well between Pakistan and Iran, despite the fact that the two countries officially use every chance to deny that there is friction.
In mid-October, it was reported that around a dozen Iranian security personnel were kidnapped along the border with Pakistan’s Balochistan province. After that, Iran not only sought help from Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to recover the kidnapped guards, but also fired mortar shells into a bordering town in Chaghi district called Talaap. Thankfully, there were no causalities.
It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time Iranian security personnel have been kidnapped along the border, or mortar shells have been fired into bordering towns in Balochistan province. There have been such incidents in the past, and it’s reasonable to expect more occurrences in the future.
What has gone wrong between Pakistan and Iran? Among myriad reasons, there are ethnic tensions related to the Balochs, the namesake of both Pakistan’s Balochistan and Iran’s neighboring Sistan and Baluchestan province. In a nutshell, Balochs live on both sides of the Pakistan-Iran border, and maintain cultural, political, and economic ties to each other. The Baloch factor occupies a crucial space in the overall affairs of the two countries, yet the sensitive issue is rarely discussed.
In the past, Baloch politics was largely left-oriented. In 1967, during the Cold War, Baloch nationalists founded their first leftist organization, the Baloch Students Organization (BSO). When international communism became divided due to the Sino-Soviet split, the Baloch nationalists joined the pro-Soviet camp. Under the platform of the National Awami Party (NAP), Baloch and Pakhtun progressive leaders of Pakistan formed their first democratically elected governments in Balochistan and the former North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the early 1970s.
More than Pakistan’s prime minister at the time, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, it was Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, who was severely irked by the secular nationalist government in Balochistan. There were two reasons for this.
First, Iran’s Shah was anti-communist. He feared that the Baloch secular nationalists, who had formed the provincial government in Balochistan after the general elections of 1970, were being supported by the Soviet Union. In addition, it was also the Afghan government’s policy to support Baloch nationalist groups, along with Pakhtun nationalists in Pakistan. A case in point was the Afghan government under Mohammed Daoud Khan (1973-78), who even talked of a Greater Balochistan.
Second, the Shah of Iran also feared that Baloch nationalism would spill over into Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province. In the 1970s, just like the Balochs in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Balochs in Iran were also secular nationalists. As the Shah of Iran was afraid of Baloch nationalism, Islamabad and Tehran together looked at the Baloch question as a common challenge — albeit only in military and security terms. That is why they, to a great extent, succeeded in crushing Baloch nationalism militarily throughout the 1970s. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, for example, ousted the provincial government of the NAP in Balochistan in 1973.
But more broadly, Iran has been dubiously eyeing Balochistan province in Pakistan from the very beginning. During the reign of military dictator Ayub Khan, several bordering areas of Pakistan were handed over to Iran. Mirjaveh, which is now a town in Iran that sits on the border with Pakistan, was one of those areas. The issue still causes anger in Balochistan today. In 2000, when I was a student in Dalbandin, a town along the Pakistan-Iran border in Balochistan’s Chaghi district, I had a teacher who used to regularly lash out at Pakistan’s leadership for giving Mirjaveh to Iran (interestingly, whether out of fear of reprisal or misinformation, my teacher blamed at Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, not Ayub Khan).
On the other hand, Iran has also had territorial claims over parts of Balochistan. In this regard, when East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) separated from Pakistan, there were rumors that Iran hoped to occupy parts of Balochistan in case of Pakistan’s further disintegration.
Despite these issues, under the Shah of Iran, Pakistan and Iran were close although there were several ups and downs in the relationship.
In the 1970s, when Bhutto visited Iran, he also invited Balochistan’s then-governor, Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, to join the trip. The governor ended up being better received than Bhutto himself – a clear sign that Iran saw the benefits to be gained from friendly ties with Balochistan. Good ties with Iran would benefit the Pakistani province as well — unfortunately, that is not happening.
Today Pakistan-Iran cooperation is being replaced by competition. One of the most conspicuous points of competition is over their twin ports in the two Baloch territories: Gwadar in Pakistan and Chabahar in Iran. Although officially Pakistan and Iran call these ports “sisters” that can together change the fate of the whole region, in reality, there is a cut-throat competition between these two ports. Pakistan and Iran are eagerly developing their separate ports with the involvement of China and India, respectively.
Adding to the tensions, the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has currently taken an uglier turn. Pakistan in general and Balochs in particular have been victims of the Iran-Saudi tensions. In this context, Iran has accused Pakistan of giving refuge to Saudi-sponsored jihadi Baloch militants, who allegedly carry out attacks on both Iranian security forces in the border region and state installations inside Iran. Pakistan has vehemently denied these charges time and again.
In response to these new development, Iran has now become soft on its old adversaries: Baloch nationalists. In recent years, although Iran and Baloch nationalists do not trust each other, they have allied themselves temporarily — so much so that Iran now thinks of Baloch nationalists as its best hope against a joint Gulf-Pakistan alliance. As for Baloch nationalists, they are desperate, and have also stretched out their hand to Iran. For instance, in the recent past, news circulated on social media that a Baloch separatist organization in the border area of Makran division had handed over to Iran three members of the Jaish ul-Adl (Army of Justice) group, a Sunni Baloch militant group fighting against Iran.
Balochistan can either be a source of tension or (preferably) a reason for Pakistan and Iran to agree to work together toward peace in this troubled region. As Balochs live on both sides of the border, in reality there cannot be an “Iranian solution” or a “Pakistani solution” to the Baloch question. Even if one side of the border is stabilized, instability from the other side will invariably spill over. So, in this context, Islamabad and Tehran need to look at the Baloch issue as a common challenge.
But in doing so, both governments need to look beyond the military and security facet of the Baloch problem. Economic development and better political representation in both Islamabad and Tehran for Baloch from both sides of the border have to be part of the process.
The other alternative is what we are seeing to date: the two countries can use the Baloch region to engage in a tit-for-tat, zero sum geopolitical competition by letting other actors (such as India and the Gulf States) get involved. This has only made matters worse.
It is in the best interest of the two countries to mutually resolve their issues, so that peace may return to region. Otherwise, instability on the border region will soon reach a boiling point.
Muhammad Akbar Notezai is a Lahore-based journalist and correspondent for The Diplomat. He tweets as @Akbar_notezai.