The recent statement by high ranking Major General Mohammad Baqeri to strike at “terror safe havens” inside Pakistan has caused a great tumult in the region. In response, The Foreign Office (FO) on Tuesday cautioned Tehran that a warning issued by the Iranian army chief a day earlier was against the “spirit of brotherly relations” between Pakistan and Iran. Meanwhile media in Pakistan’s nemesis India was ecstatic, claiming that its allegation of Pakistan being an export center of terrorism stood vindicated by the Iranian statement.
The Iranian statement came in the backdrop of a bloody attack on Iranian soldiers near the Pak-Iran border. The militant group Jaish al-Adl, or the Army of Justice, claimed responsibility for the attack that killed 10 Iranian soldiers. Jaish al-Adl is a Sunni militant group that has carried out several attacks on Iranian security forces with the aim of highlighting what they say is discrimination against Sunni Muslims and the Baloch ethnic group in the province. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks that killed eight border guards in April 2015 and 14 border guards in October 2013.
The group is asserted to have been set up by members of the Jundallah, a Sunni militant group, in 2012. Jundullah was another organization fighting against the Iranian State for Sunni rights. Its strength weakened after its leader Abdolmalek Rigi was arrested and executed in 2010. According to US intelligence sources, Pakistani forces captured and handed over Rigi to the Iranians. The Pak-Iran border has been a rather safe spot for terror attacks and terrorist movements.
On 23 May 2016, the leader of the Afghan Taliban Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was killed in a US airstrike on the Pak-Afghan border after entering Pakistan from Iran. Earlier on 3 March 2016, a serving Indian intelligence officer Kulbhusan Jadhav was arrested inside Balochistan in Mashkel near the border region of Chaman, having made illegal entry into Pakistan via Iran. He was arrested during a counter intelligence raid conducted by security forces. Jadhav accepted that he was working for the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and being in contact with Baloch separatists and terrorists, fuelling sectarian violence in Pakistan.
While Iran has not yet blamed Pakistan for officially backing anti-Iran militant groups and has cooperated in various anti-terror operations, there is a sense of cold conflict between Iran and Pakistan since the 1979 Khomeini Revolution. Mainly because based on intelligence reports Iran is involved in backing some sectarian outfits inside Pakistan, who always played a negative role to import the Iranian theology inside the neighboring country, thus disturbing the balance and harmony. These outfits often turned violent and wreaked havoc throughout the country.
The most famous has been the Sipah-e-Muhammad, a Shia supremacist sectarian militant group infamous for killings of several Pakistani Sunni Muslims. Sipah-e Muhammad is a Shia militant organization established in 1993 by Maulana Abbas Yazdani who split from the pro-Iran Shia political group Tehreek-e-Jafria claiming to fight anti-Shia violence by Sunni sectarian groups while others assert that it is an Iranian proxy pursuing Iranian geopolitical interests within Pakistan. At the height of its power, it ran a virtual fiefdom in the town of Thokar Niaz Beg during the 1990s.
Iran provided training and materials to the Sipah-e-Muhammad and eventually a safe haven for its members after successful counter terror operations broke down the group. Its head Allama Ghulam Raza Naqvi passed away in Iran on 6 March 2016.
The Sipah-e-Muhammad seems to be in a period of resurgence since 2012. It was found to be behind the target killings of several Islamic scholars belonging to the Deoband school of thought and also behind the murder of a Saudi diplomat and a grenade attack on the Saudi embassy. Some members arrested by LEAs in 2014 told that 200 militants of Sipah-e-Muhammad, trained from Iran and heavily armed, were hunting down members of their theological and political rivals.
Of course, Iranian interference in Pakistan is not limited to Sipah-e-Muhammad, recently Iran has been increasing its presence in the restive areas of Pakistan. Its interference in the rise of the Mahdi militia in the sectarian violence hit Kurram agency region, as well as the rise of the Mahdi militia in the beleaguered Hazara community of Balochistan. However, the latest most worrying aspect has been the use of Pakistani nationals as foreign fighters in many of the Iranian proxy wars in the Middle East like Iraq and Syria. A Shia militant group called the liwa’ zaynabiyun (Zaynabiyun Brigade) has risen in Syria consisting exclusively of Pakistanis. Fallen fighters of such groups are buried with full military honors in Iran and Syria. Thus far, there have been at least twenty funerals for Pakistani fighters in Syria, but there are no real estimates regarding Pakistani fatalities in Syria, and the actual number of those killed in action could be much greater the number of funerals documented.
Iran also has a cause for running sectarianism inside Pakistan. Pakistan has the largest Shia population per capita only after Iran and is an important country of the Muslim world. It is probable that Iranian sectarian desires could recreate the sectarian environment of Iraq and Syria in Pakistan.
Another militant group alleged to have ties with the Iranian establishment is the ethnonational Baloch terror group, the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF). Led by Dr. Allah Nazar, this group aims to separate Balochistan from Pakistan and aims to purify it of non-Baloch settlers. The BLF has been provided safe havens, materials and training by Iran in order to take out anti-Iran elements in Pakistan’s Balochistan.
In April 2017, Pakistani LEAs took a Karachi based gangster Uzair Baloch into custody. It was revealed that Uzair Baloch had deep ties with both Indian and Iranian agencies and Baloch had divulged information about the Armed Forces of Pakistan, including intelligence officials, and details of sensitive installations and offices.
It is evident that militancy is a two way street in Pakistan Iran relations with the onus lying heavily on Tehran. However the recent strains between the two owe more to geopolitical shifts rather than militant violence. Iran has expressed displeasure time and again about Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). It was quite clear that, despite the assurances given by Pakistan at various levels that it would not be a party to any anti-Iran activity by this organization, Tehran continued to view it with deep mistrust and apprehensions.
The answer to this predicament lies in the strategic struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran in its period of resurgence wishes to overturn the existing Saudi led order of the MENA region and views Pakistan’s closeness to Saudi as detrimental to its goals. Therefore it aims to turn away Pakistan from its current foreign policy vis-à-vis Saudi either by hook or crook. For Pakistan, it is a difficult position as it aims to stay clear of any sectarian rifts in the Muslim world and also have friendly and brotherly relations with each and every Muslim country. Therefore there is a stark need of foresight, strategic patience and unyielding determination as well as internal unity to avert a crisis that may engulf the entire Muslim world.