Explainer: Are Iran and Pakistan at war?

Explainer: Are Iran and Pakistan at war?
Pakistan strike Iran, are we at war? / CC: Logger
By bne IntelIiNews January 19, 2024
Is Iran at war with everyone? The ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has escalated into a wider regional conflict involving Iran and its allies. Recently, Pakistan launched a retaliatory strike against Iran following an Iranian attack on Pakistani soil, with everyone now concerned about everything spinning out of control.
Pakistan's retaliatory airstrikes inside Iran on January 18 marked a watershed in West and South Asian international relations. Islamabad’s air force launched the retaliatory airstrikes on two alleged militant positions inside Iran for the first time, days after an Iranian airstrike on likely militant sites inside Pakistan. The two neighbours have never bombed each other before. 
Relations between Tehran and Islamabad had nosedived after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) destroyed two bases of the separatist Sunni group Jaish ul-Adl in Pakistan on January 16 using missiles and drones.
Pakistan's retaliatory strikes in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province killed at least seven suspected terrorists who apparently did not have Iranian passports, Tehran said. 
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), which is linked to the country's armed forces, said: “The targeted hideouts were being used by notorious terrorists including Dosta alias Chairman, Bajjar alias Soghat, Sahil alias Shafaq, Asghar alias Basham and Wazir alias Wazi, amongst others.
“Our resolve to ensure that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan is respected and safeguarded against any misadventure remains unwavering. We reaffirm our determination to defeat all enemies of Pakistan with the support of the people of Pakistan,” it added.
Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, denounced the attack and summoned Pakistan’s chargé d'affaires to convey Tehran’s protest.
Why did Pakistan hit Iran back? 
There is a long history of Pakistani pride and domestic politics at play. An immediate provocation for Pakistan's incursion was Iran's previous strikes against Baloch separatist groups, notably the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), operating within Iranian territory. This action, seemingly underestimating Pakistan's resolve, compelled Islamabad to assert its military prowess. However, the roots of this conflict go deeper into a history of mutual recriminations over harbouring respective Baloch separatists on both sides of the border.
Pakistan's decision to undertake these airstrikes can be seen as a culmination of lessons learned from past experiences. The 2011 US operation in Abbottabad, which culminated in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, was a critical juncture in which its sovereignty was ignored by the world superpower. Pakistan's inability to militarily counter this violation of its sovereignty, mainly due to the overwhelming might of the US forces in neighbouring Afghanistan, set a precedent that others in the region observed keenly — in a sense, the country had become what it most feared, a battleground for others much like Afghanistan, Iraq and latterly Syria.
This perceived military impotence was not lost on India, which executed what it termed ‘surgical strikes’ into Pakistani territory in the following years, which in turn caused a furore in Islamabad with successive premiers struggling to deal with the aftermath of their country being used without its permission.
These actions, following the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the Pulwama incident in 2019, punctuated an escalating pattern of cross-border incursions to Pakistan’s east. The resultant Balakot airstrikes by India and Pakistan's subsequent downing of an Indian aircraft further intensified these dynamics. They pushed the 77-year-old Islamic Republic of Pakistan to the edge of war with its much larger nemesis to the east.
It's essential to put these actions into the context of Pakistan's broader strategic situation. The response to US incursions, culminating in the evacuation of American forces from Shamsi airfield and an eventual US apology, demonstrated Pakistan's ability to leverage diplomatic channels effectively.
Conversely, the ongoing conflict with India over Kashmir and the resultant military engagements underscore the country’s fragility, not least with Pashtun Islamist forces, which would quite enjoy the government falling and an Islamic Emirate appearing like the Taliban has done in Afghanistan. Neither Iran nor India want to see the collapse of the known entity that is Pakistan with multiple states appearing in its place.
The competing and different Islamic Republics
Historically, Iran and Pakistan have maintained cordial relations since Pakistan's inception in 1947. The two countries were part of the US-backed Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), aimed at containing Soviet expansion during the Cold War. However, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 marked a turning point, introducing a theocratic regime in Iran that was ideologically divergent from Pakistan's military and political leadership despite the two going by the moniker of ‘Islamic Republic’.
Despite these ideological shifts, both countries have worked to maintain cooperation, particularly in economic and security matters, although the long-running saga of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and US objections and persistent blocking of the project has caused significant tensions for Tehran, which has sought to find markets closer to home for its exports. The Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, initiated to address Pakistan's energy needs, is the primary example of their failed attempts at economic collaboration, with the US remaining firmly in charge of Pakistan’s dealings with Iran.
In recent years, Iran and Pakistan's relationship has been further complicated by Pakistan's growing closeness with Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival, and Pakistan's balancing act between Saudi and Iranian interests. The strike on January 18 is unlikely to have happened without Saudi knowledge. However, it would be a stretch to say that Pakistan sought Riyadh’s permission for the strike.
Also, the evolving situation in Afghanistan since the US withdrawal has presented new challenges and opportunities for collaboration between Tehran and Islamabad, which have worked in tandem in recent months to eject Afghan refugees back into the hands of the Taliban. Both nations share concerns over the resurgence of militancy and the potential spillover of refugees, necessitating a coordinated approach to regional security and stability. 
However, the strikes have ratcheted up tensions, at least in public, between the two neighbours, who have bickered for years over how each supports insurgencies against the other in their respective border regions. At the heart of the flare-up lies a long list of cross-border insurgencies over the past twenty years from successive Sunni Muslim groups tied with the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan and other Baluchi separatist groups.  
Pakistan’s strike was called ‘Marg Bar Sarmachar’, a phrase meaning ‘Death to the Freedomfighters’. ‘Sarmachars’ is a term commonly used in the context of the Balochistan region of Pakistan and Iran. It translates to 'freedom fighters’ or ‘those who fight with their heads’.
The conflict has also highlighted a credibility crisis for Iran's leadership, particularly since the US drone strike that killed Major General Qassem Soleimani in 2020. Iran's responses, including the recent strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan and Pakistan, are seen as efforts to re-establish deterrence. However, the lack of a solid response to Soleimani's killing all those years ago and the continued bold actions of groups like the Houthis, who have gained popularity and recruits in Yemen, indicate a complex dynamic where Iran's influence is not absolute.

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