Divide and Conquer: How the Islamic Republic’s Strike on Pakistan Fits into a Familiar Strategy

On January 16, on the heels of deadly strikes against Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran launched a deadly missile and drone attack on western Pakistan in a clear violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistani government responded forcefully, by promptly recalling their ambassador from Tehran, expelling Iran’s ambassador from Islamabad, and warning of  “serious consequences.” Pakistan retaliated on January 18 with its missile strikes in the first conventional land attack against Iran since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Then, just as suddenly as the crisis began, it appeared to reach its end. On January 19, the Pakistani government announced the resumption of diplomatic ties, citing the “close brotherly relations” between the two states – a sentiment echoed in Iranian state media.

Though not unprecedented in the history of relations between Iran and Pakistan, this rapid escalation and apparent de-escalation should not go unnoticed. Rather, these events mark a clear pattern of behavior in Iranian domestic politics and foreign policy, with concerning international implications. Most importantly, such events will likely increase in frequency.

First, it is important to recognize the historical context of the situation. Baluchistan, the cross-border region where the strikes occurred, is one of the most impoverished parts of Iran. Since the advent of the Islamic Republic’s rule, Baluchis, who are predominantly Sunni, have faced deprivation of civil rights, torture, disproportionate imprisonment, and arbitrary execution. In Pakistan, Baluchis have faced extreme poverty and a similar history of repression beginning under the first military government in the 1960s. After decades of low-level resistance, a full-fledged insurgency emerged in the region in the early 2000s, in which Iran and Pakistan met with counter-insurgency operations beginning in 2003 and 2005 respectively. The organization targeted last week, Jaish al-Adl, emerged in 2012 as an offshoot of one of the initial insurgent groups known as Jundallah. Throughout their campaigns, Iran and Pakistan have cooperated on a tenuous basis. However, any efforts to share intelligence or conduct joint combat operations have been overshadowed by Iranian transgressions. These include unilateral incursions into Pakistan’s territory and airspace in 2013 and 2014, each of which were met with dithering responses.

Map of the Baluchistan cross-border region in Iran and Pakistan (BBC)
Map of the Baluchistan cross-border region in Iran and Pakistan (BBC)

The Islamic Republic has also used this “counter-insurgency” campaign in Baluchistan as a means to inflame ethnic tensions domestically as part of a broader effort to de-legitimize protest movements by framing them as terrorist or separatist in nature. This occurred most prominently in September 2022 during the nationwide anti-regime protests that erupted following the murder of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian girl who was killed by the “morality police” for “improper” hijab. As a unified protest movement emerged, the regime turned to its divide-and-conquer playbook, with attacks focused on ethnic lines against Iranian Kurds, Azeris, and Baluchis.

However, this rhetoric is nothing new – it has been implemented in some form since the 1979 revolution. As such, it is no coincidence that the initiation of the “counter-insurgency” campaign in Baluchistan coincided with student protests against the Khatami government. Furthermore, escalations in the conflict have occurred in the months following mass protests in 2006 and  2009, including mass executions, the construction of a border wall, and expansions of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) activity. These actions have gone beyond reasonable reprisal for attacks by insurgent organizations and are deliberately targeted against civilians. This trend continued during the 2019 and 2022 protests, and the association of political dissent with separatism continues to feature prominently in the Islamic Republic’s messaging. Therefore, with the potential for further unrest as arrested protestors are executed and the region destabilizes, it makes sense that Iran would escalate in Baluchistan and carry out strikes specifically targeting Kurds.

The “counter-insurgency” campaign has the secondary function of placating the small but radical support base of the Islamic Republic within Iranian society. Since 2007, Iranian officials have repeatedly argued that Baluchi militants are funded and armed by the United States and Israel. They have also noted connections between Baluchi militants, ISIS, and al-Qaeda, which they claim are Israeli proxies. These conspiracy theories have enabled the regime to frame the Islamic Republic as under attack by Israel and the United States and to depict action against Baluchi insurgents as a bulwark to prevent future infiltration or invasion efforts. Therefore, as the regime’s radical constituency calls for direct intervention in the war between Israel and Hamas or retaliation against ISIS-Khorasan after the Kerman bombings, Baluchi militants serve as a useful cat’s paw. By executing a dramatic strike in Pakistani Baluchistan, the Islamic Republic can claim to be confronting Israel and the United States without actually doing so.

The Islamic Republic’s decision to escalate the “counter-insurgency” campaign by striking targets in Pakistan also follows a pattern of foreign policy decision-making. The modus operandi for the IRGC has long hinged on identifying weak states, building up proxies within those states, and eventually taking direct action. This has been seen most notably in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Tehran has identified weakness in Pakistan, especially in its failure to crack down on terrorism. Furthermore, the IRGC has worked tirelessly for the last decade to develop a base of support within Pakistan’s Shia communities, not least in Kashmir. In doing so, the IRGC has established a soft-power infrastructure designed to nurture its ideology as a means to recruit and radicalize young Pakistani men for its militias. This has coincided with the creation of the Zainebiyoun, an IRGC-manufactured militia comprised of Pakistani Shias, extensive espionage operations, and the assassination of a Saudi diplomat on Pakistani soil by the IRGC’s Quds Force. Following this pattern, it is possible that the regime perceived Pakistan’s contested election as an opportunity to interfere in Pakistani politics through the creation of destabilizing conditions.

Ultimately, the Islamic Republic’s escalation in Baluchistan is likely to continue. The United States was unable to deter Tehran’s violation of Pakistani sovereignty, and the effects of China’s tepid offer to mediate are unclear, which does not bode well for the future influence of either state in the region. This situation demonstrates that China’s ambitions of acting as an arbiter are not particularly realistic in the near-term. It also reinforces the trouble the United States is already facing in its efforts to curtail threats posed by IRGC proxies. Given the weakness demonstrated by these states, it is more than likely that the crisis came to a resolution due to Pakistan’s stronger-than-expected response.

Therefore, should the Islamic Republic find it opportune, it could further intervene in Pakistani affairs despite the current de-escalation. Within Iran’s borders, the so-called counter-insurgency campaign will become an increasingly important political tool as pressure continues to mount – either from protests against the Islamic Republic or from the regime’s radical constituency in support of military action against the United States and Israel.

Jack Roush is a research associate at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a PhD candidate in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is on Twitter @RoushJackW.