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Pakistan-Iran Airstrikes: Who is Paying the Price?

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Pakistan-Iran Airstrikes: Who is Paying the Price?

While much of the discussion of the crisis has been about geopolitics, militant groups, and proxy wars, the people living in the border areas are bearing the brunt.

Pakistan-Iran Airstrikes: Who is Paying the Price?

Members of Muslim Talba Mahaz Pakistan chant slogans at a demonstration to condemn Iran strike in the Pakistani border area, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

On January 16 and 17, Iran and Pakistan engaged in tit-for-tat airstrikes in the border provinces of Balochistan and Sistan-Baluchestan. Both sides claimed they had targeted militant camps across the border.

However, Iran’s strikes hit Sabz Koh, a small village in Panjgur district in Balochistan, Pakistan, where allegedly civilians, mostly children and women were killed and injured. Several houses and a mosque were also left in ruins.

Following the Iranian strikes, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said that “Pakistan reserved the right to retaliate.” And this is exactly what it did.

The following day, Pakistan carried out military strikes in the border village of Saravan in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan, claiming to have targeted the “hideouts used by the terrorist organizations.”

Pakistan also immediately suspended all official joint initiatives with Iran, recalling its ambassador from Tehran and expelling the Iranian envoy in Islamabad. Similar reactions emerged from the Iranian side, when Iran’s Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Nasser Kanaani slammed the strikes on Iranian soil and demanded an explanation from the Pakistani government on the matter.

However, reflecting the love-hate relationship that the two countries share, Iran’s Foreign Ministry announced that “it would not allow its ‘enemies’ to strain its amicable and brotherly relation with Islamabad.” Within days, Iran and Pakistan set in motion steps to restore diplomatic relations. Their ambassadors are expected to be returning to each other’s capitals.

While this positive development suggests an ebbing of tensions, it may be at best temporary. “For now, Pakistan and Iran might pretend to have calmed down the situation, but they can’t have completely forgotten what recently happened,” said Wajahat S. Khan, a Pakistani defense journalist.

Over the last few days, a lot has been discussed about Iran’s current positioning in the geopolitical situation, the proxy wars abroad, and their connections with the recent attack in Pakistan. But not much is discussed about who bears the direct brunt of the escalating tensions at the Iran-Pakistan border.

Pakistan and Iran share a 900-kilometer-long border. The ethnic Baloch make up the largest population on both sides; many of them share familial relations. Both provinces are the poorest in their respective countries, where border trade provides a large portion of the economic activity for the locals.

Iran has a long-standing aggression toward Baloch Sunni sectarian militant groups operating in its Sistan-Baluchestan province. On the Pakistani side, the Pakistani state perceives Baloch nationalist and militant groups as a threat.

Both governments have a history of cooperating to weaken Baloch nationalist and sectarian groups operating on their side of the border. Both have from time to time carried out operations against the groups and have occasionally also pointed fingers at each other for not doing enough and for allegedly supporting and providing safe havens for the anti-state groups on their respective frontiers.

There is some speculation that the recent attacks might have been coordinated ones aimed at weakening nationalist and sectarian groups or at least spreading fear among them regarding potential future attacks.

But looking at Iran’s current geopolitical standing, many believe that this might not be the case.

Regardless, this comes at the cost of the lives of civilians, predominantly Baloch women and children in both countries. With the recent attacks, a new fear and uncertainty has gripped people living in the border districts.

“It seems like we [residents of the border towns] are being dragged into something we have nothing to do with,” said Ilyas Baloch, a resident of Gwadar, who has worked at the border in the past. The local economy relies on cross-border trade, whether legal or illegal. The closure of the border at Panjgur even for a day after the recent attack evoked great concern among the people, he said.

Their fear is not without basis.

“People have families on either side, they fear losing connections. Besides, we rely on Iranian fuel [for] all our vehicles, including buses, trucks, and even fishing boats. The liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) used in our households, a huge chunk of food items as well as construction material come from Iran,” Baloch, the Gwadar resident said.

Last week, a Pakistani delegation to the Joint Trade Committee Meetings in Iran’s port city of Chabahar was also called back. The Deputy Commissioner of Gwadar Aurangzeb Badini, who was part of the delegation, told The Diplomat that they had to return following “instructions from the federal government.”

“The annual Joint Trade Committee Meetings facilitate the signing of new trade agreements and renewing existing ones. But the recent airstrikes disrupted this year’s meetings. This situation has raised concerns about the potential cancellation or delay of many important trade deals,” said Shams-ul-Haq, president of the Gwadar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI).

There might be delays, but Iran cannot afford to cancel or terminate its trade deals with Pakistan, put a halt on cross-border trade, or let the tensions escalate.

In fact, Iran has been pushing for more trade deals with Pakistan, which the latter for years was hesitant to go ahead with, especially after the 2013 U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil, gas, and other petrochemical products.

Due to these sanctions, oil is brought in through illegal routes. According to Pakistan’s Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (OGRA), around 4,000 tons of Iranian fuel is smuggled daily into Pakistan. Illicit Iranian fuel has for decades provided an economic source for thousands of people in the poverty-stricken province.

“Stability in the Pakistan-Iran situation is crucial for this region. A border closure means thousands of people with no source of income,” said Haq.

Iran’s legal trade with Pakistan is worth around $1.5 billion per year. In 2021, the two governments planned to set up six border crossings and markets between the two countries to increase trade, but the plans have seen little progress. In January 2023, the two sides signed 39 memorandums of understanding. Most of them are pending.

A long-standing deal of importance is the construction of a 2,775-km-long LPG pipeline between Iran and Pakistan, which was agreed upon in 1995. While Iran had completed its side of the pipeline by 2011, Pakistan has been hesitant to move forward. After more than a decade and persistent pressure from Iran, Pakistan has failed to get its act together, adding to Iran’s frustration.

More than anyone, people living along the Iran-Pakistan border are keen for peace and stability as they want to be able to earn a living through cross-border trade. They want Iran-Pakistan projects to move forward.

The targets of the recent strikes may have been the militant groups. But it is the Baloch people on both sides of the border that are bearing the brunt of bilateral tensions.