Pakistan’s Growing Iran Problem

Last week, Pakistani and Iranian army chiefs talked terrorism over the phone. But the official readouts by their respective militaries could not be more different. This is the latest sign of simmering tensions between Tehran and Islamabad that have wider implications for next-door Afghanistan and the Gulf.  

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa called up Maj. Gen. Mohammad Baqeri, Chief of the Armed Forces of Iran, to complain that a “terrorist attack” close to Iran’s border last week killed six Pakistani soldiers, including a major. Pakistan has decided to fence its border with Iran, Gen. Bajwa said, but needed “mutual bilateral cooperation” from the Iranian side. Pakistani officials say they have indications the attackers came from Iran.

Around the same time that the Iranian and Pakistani commanders spoke, Pakistan’s foreign minister stood in the parliament and accused Iran of pushing up to 5,000 Pakistanis – visiting Iran’s Shia Muslim shrines – through the border despite pleas to wait. Aside from the blatant mistreatment of Pakistani visitors, the Iranian move introduced COVID-19 into Pakistan, and caused a security alert. Tehran is likely to have used the confusion to ‘return’ some IRGC-trained Pakistani recruits in the Zeynabioun Brigade who fought in Syria. Iran had been demanding Pakistan to accept them back for months, to no avail.

After the call, Iran’s state-run IRNA news service released a story that basically omitted everything the Pakistani general said. Instead, it claimed the Iranian general all but admonished the Pakistani side for terrorism and demanded Pakistan reopen the border for trade, which Tehran desperately needs now to bust sanctions, overriding Pakistan’s pandemic concerns, of which Iran is the regional epicenter and the main source of initial spread in the neighborhood in February and March.

The IRNA story also said that Gen. Baqeri told his Pakistani counterpart that Iran “expects Pakistan’s military officials to take decisive action” against anti-Iran groups, a reference to indigenous Iranian rebel groups fighting the regime that sometimes straddle Iran’s haunted border regions with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That is not what the head of the powerful Pakistani military discussed. Released a day later, on Tuesday, the Pakistani military’s media office posted a short business-like summary of the telephone call that did not mince words, with this line marked in bold on its website: “COAS [Chief of Army Staff] expressed concerns on recent terrorist attack on Pak security forces resulting in shahadat [martyrdom] of 6 security personnel near Pak-Iran border.”

There was no mention of trade. However, Iran did get some of what Gen. Baqeri asked for. Hours after the call, Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency announced Pakistan had reopened the Mirjavah border crossing for limited Iranian trade, but urged Pakistan to accept more cargo.

Pakistan’s forty-year-old policy of avoiding getting into the crosshairs of Iran’s ayatollahs is facing a challenge as the Revolutionary Guards set their eyes on Pakistan while the two countries compete for strategic interests in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. The new head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Esmail Ghaani, who replaced Soleimani, is an Afghanistan expert who has given Pakistan a tough time over the years.

Iran wants to keep a check on Pakistan getting too close to United States and its regional allies, and stop Pakistani military involvement in the Gulf, including in joint patrols with the U.S. Fifth Fleet. While at it, Iran is wary of expanded Pakistani role in Afghanistan peace talks.

The Buleda attack of May 8, 2020 comes almost a year after a similar incident where Iran-based attackers captured and executed 14 Pakistani navy and air force personnel at Ormara before fleeing back to Iran. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Iran immediately afterwards to appease Iran’s Khomeinist rulers, only to see a few weeks later the only five-star hotel at Pakistan’s strategic port city of Gwadar attacked in a sophisticated operation on May 11, 2019. That attack occurred only a few hours before the attack on oil tankers off Fujairah port in the Gulf of Oman, not far from the site of the Pakistani attack, and two days before the attack on Saudi oil installations.

These attacks on Pakistani, Emirati, and Saudi interests over three days in May 2019 closely mirrored a blunt threat made by Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, then commander-in-chief of IRGC, in February, of “revenge” after Iranian militant group, Jaish Al-Adl, blew up buses inside Iran on February 13 carrying Quds Force soldiers. There is no evidence the three countries were involved, and the ayatollahs are fond of blaming other countries for what essentially are internal troubles.

As the endgame nears in Afghanistan, and Iran’s regionwide proxy infrastructure comes under scrutiny, Pakistanis are forced to consider options to counter Iran’s growing meddling inside their country. Pakistan has previously shown the red eye to IRGC, but aside from harsh military options, there is a debate now on softer options to deter Iran’s mullahs, including opening communication channels with Iranians opposed to the clerical regime, as a way of balancing Quds Force’s ingress inside Pakistan.

Ahmed Quraishi is a journalist based in Islamabad and Dubai who covers national security.