Iran Pulse 90

           No. 90                                                            March 5, 2019

 Iran Fears Proxy War in Baluchistan as Pakistan Realigns with Saudi Arabia

Micha'el Tanchum*


Major-General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, and other senior commanders reacted with uncharacteristic vitriol in the aftermath of the February 13, 2019 attack on their forces by Iranian Baluch militants in the country's restive Sistan and Baluchistan province bordering Pakistan. Already overstretched westward through its military presence in Iraq and Syria, Tehran is the deeply concerned over its vulnerability to the threat posed by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-sponsored proxy war conducted across Iran's eastern border from Pakistan. Iran's messaging through the Guard Corps commanders' remarks were intended to deter this development by putting Pakistan on notice that it would pay a severe cost.


The new tone from Tehran is a response to Pakistan's recent tilt back toward Saudi Arabia since Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan assumed office six months ago. Under his predecessor Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan attempted to steer a more neutral course and cooperated with Iran's efforts to combat Buluch militants.  However, after cash-starved Pakistan received desperately needed economic aid packages from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Tehran suspects that Islamabad has acceded to the use of its territory for alleged Saudi and Emirati-funded attacks by Buluch militants.


Laying the blame with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies for supporting the Jaish ul-Adl militants who claimed responsibility for the February 13th attack, the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) threatened Jaish ul-Adl's supposed sponsors with retaliation against their interests anywhere in the world.  They also issued a stern ultimatum to Pakistan to cease abetting Iranian Baluch militants operating within its territory to conduct cross-border attacks.  Baluch militants have been conducting a growing campaign against Iran's security apparatus. The February 13th suicide attack on a bus carrying IRGC personnel – killing 27 IRGC personnel and injuring 13 – was the most recent in a series of attacks conducted by Jaish ul-Adl ("Army of Justice"). 


Speaking a week after the attack at a ceremony in northern Iran, Major-General Soleimani rhetorically addressed the Pakistani government and asked, "Are you, who have atomic bombs, unable to destroy a terrorist group with several hundred members in the region?" After denouncing the alleged Saudi financing of the militants' operations and decrying its harmful effects on Pakistan, Soleimani then continued by putting the Pakistanis on notice. "I warn you not to test Iran and anyone who has tested Iran has received a firm response," Soleimani continued, "We are telling that country [Pakistan] not to allow their borders to become a source of insecurity for the neighboring countries."


Speaking in Isfahan at the burial ceremony for the IRGC personnel killed in the attack, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, threatened Saudi Arabia the United Arab Emirates in no uncertain terms "The traitor governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE should know that the Islamic Republic of Iran's patience has run out and the Islamic Republic will not tolerate your secret supports for the Takfiri grouplets." Jafari added, "Pakistan should also know that it should pay the cost for the Pakistani intelligence organization's support for Jaish al-Zolm from now on and this price will no doubt be very heavy for them." Jaish al-Zolm ('Army of Oppression') is the name Iranian officials use to refer to Jaish ul-Adl.


Baluchistan, roughly the size of California, is divided between Iran and Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan.  The sparsely populated region is a haven to smugglers as well as militants, with over 70 percent of the world's opium seizures occurring in Iran from trafficking across its border with Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The largely impoverished Sunni Baluch people in Iran face systemic ethnic and religious discrimination from the Persian and Shiʻi-dominated state. 


Jaish al-Adl emerged from the remains of Jundallah ('Soldiers of God'), the Baluchi militant organization that launched an insurgency in southeastern Iran in 2000.  However, Jaish al-Adl was a distinct jihadi current within the more ethno-nationalist focused Jundallah and has its roots in the virulently anti-Shiʻi, Sunni extremist groups that came to the fore in the 1990s in Pakistan and trained with the Taliban in Afghanistan. After Iran's 2010 capture and execution of Jundallah's leader Abdolmalek Rigi, Jaish al-Adl has risen to prominence for the lethality of its attacks on Iran's border guards as well as the IRGC.

During his third, non-consecutive tenure as Pakistan's prime minister from 2013 to 2017, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attempted to tilt Pakistan's foreign policy away from its dependence on Saudi Arabia and strike a more balanced position between Riyadh and Tehran.  Islamabad was able to sustain this shift because of a massive influx of Chinese investments into Pakistan starting in April 2015. Initially $46 billion and now totaling $60 billion, China's package of infrastructure investments aims to establish the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), extending from the Chinese-administered Gwadar port on Pakistan’s Indian Ocean coast to China’s westernmost city Kashgar (Kashi) in Xinjiang.


As part of this package, China agreed to construct most of Pakistan's portion of the Iran-Pakistan (IP) natural gas pipeline. Financed by a $2 billion Chinese loan, covering 85 percent of the construction cost, Beijing signed an agreement with Islamabad to construct a pipeline from Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port to Nawabshah, where it can join Pakistan’s domestic gas distribution network. A boon for energy-starved Pakistan, the IP pipeline would deliver enough gas from Iran’s massive South Pars field to generate 4,500MW of electricity, covering Pakistan’s then total shortfall in power production.


Flushed with Chinese investments and expecting to receive desperately needed natural gas from Iran, the government of Nawaz Sharif repeatedly rejected Riyadh's requests to send Pakistani troops to Yemen to assist in the prosecution of Saudi Arabia's proxy war with Iran.  The stunning turn-around in policy came on the heels of greater counter-terrorism cooperation between the Sharif government and Tehran.  In June 2014, Pakistan's military launched the massive Operation Zarb-e Asb against the Taliban and the associated nexus of anti-Shiʻi, Sunni extremist organizations – many of whom had longstanding links to Jaish ul-Adl.  The three-year operation likewise represented a remarkable reversal as Nawaz Sharif had previously recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in 1997 during his second tenure as prime minister.  The only other country that had recognized the Taliban was Saudi Arabia.


In the same period as Operation Zarb-e Asb, Islamabad reportedly permitted Iranian forces to conduct raids on Pakistani soil, with Iranian helicopters and security vehicles frequently entering Pakistani territory in pursuit of Jaish ul-Adl militants.


However, Pakistan's recalibration toward Iran was short-lived.  In July 2017, Nawaz Sharif was removed office due to allegations based on information revealed in the 2016 Panama Papers.  Imran Khan succeeded Sharif as Pakistan's elected prime minister, following Khan's electoral victory Pakistan's July 25, 2018 elections. Under Khan's premiership, Pakistan has returned to the Saudi fold.


On October 23, 2018, Saudi Arabia formally gave Pakistan a $6 billion economic bailout package consisting of a direct transfer of $3 billion to the State Bank of Pakistan to support its balance of payments and another $3 billion in deferred payments on oil imports.  Two months later, the UAE followed suit and announced on December 21, 2018 that it would also transfer $3 billion to the State Bank of Pakistan to shore up Pakistan's foreign currency reserves.  The desperately needed financial infusions from the Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were intended to prevent Pakistan's currency from entering into freefall as Islamabad is engaged in bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.


Subsequently on January 12, 2019, Saudi Arabia announced that it would join CPEC by constructing a $10 billion oil refinery in at the Gwadar port. Being the first third-party country to join CPEC, Saudi Arabia deftly nullified any benefit Iran's relations with Pakistan derived from CPEC, leaving the future of the IP pipeline in limbo. Riyadh's current aid and investment package for Pakistan now totals $20 billion making Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, indispensable to Pakistan's economic survival.


With Pakistan more firmly tethered to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Jaish ul-Adl's February 13th attacked raised alarm bells for Tehran.  While Saudi Arabia and the UAE may insist on greater cooperation from Pakistan for the effort to defeat Iranian-sponsored Houthi forces in Yemen, it is quite likely that the anti-Iranian bloc will insist that Islamabad cease its counter-terrorism cooperation with Tehran. Beyond this minimal demand, Pakistan may be called upon to take a role in coordinating support for Jaish ul-Adl operations.  Whether Pakistan becomes actively involved or merely accedes to the use of its territory, Iran faces a new and heightened level of threat on its eastern front.


*Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University and non-resident, affiliated scholar with the Center for Strategic Studies at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM).


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Iran Pulse No. 90 ● March 5, 2019

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