In the early hours of Oct. 16, members of Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish ul-Adl kidnapped 14 Iranian security personnel in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchestan province. The incident happened in the village of Lulakdan, near the town of Mirjaveh on the Pakistani border. Although similar incidents have taken place in the past, the current regional context is noticeably different than before.
Iran, in addition to dealing with new economic and security challenges resulting from tensions with the United States, was rocked by a deadly terrorist attack on a military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz last month. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the new government is expected to pursue a path different from the traditional Muslim League parties. In Saudi Arabia, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has brought the kingdom under an unprecedented wave of criticism by its American and European allies. Yet the most significant question posed by the Oct. 16 kidnapping pertains to the Iran-Pakistan relationship.
Tensions rose between Tehran and Islamabad in April 2017, when Jaish ul-Adl militants killed 10 Iranian border guards in Sistan and Baluchestan province and then fled back across the border into Pakistan. A brief verbal clash between Pakistan and Iran ensued. Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of the general staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, called on the Pakistani government to confront militants who carry out cross-border attacks, warning that if Islamabad failed to do so, Tehran would hit militant “safe havens, wherever they are.”
Iran later targeted Pakistan’s Baluchestan region on at least two occasions, namely May 27, 2017, and July 9, 2017. Pakistan then announced that any military operation on Pakistani soil would be viewed as “an attack on its territorial integrity.” In June 2017, soon after the first attack, the Pakistani army shot down a drone it claimed Iran was using for “spy operations.” This chain of unfriendly actions was later followed by extensive high-level negotiations between the two countries until July this year, when the Iranian and Pakistani army reached an agreement to boost their intelligence and security cooperation. The Oct. 16 kidnapping is a test of whether this agreement is practical or if there will be renewed tensions.
The situation at hand has to do with more than just bilateral security cooperation. Iran and Pakistan have not had extensive or continuous relations in recent decades.
For the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan’s role in terms of regional security is based on two key principles: maintaining the security of shared borders and keeping itself away from Iran’s rivalries with Saudi Arabia and the United States. With the victory of former international cricket star Imran Khan in Pakistan’s general elections in July and the rise of a new government in Islamabad, Iran hoped that with the ML-N, which is close to Saudi Arabia, stepping aside, the new Pakistani administration would alter the status quo in favor of Iran, or at least restore it to the prior balance between Iran and its Arab rival. Yet Khan showed his preference for Riyadh over Tehran by choosing Saudi Arabia as his first foreign visit. Saudi Arabia in turn announced plans to invest heavily in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is vital for Pakistan’s economy. Saudi Arabia has also offered at least $6 billion in financial assistance, thus making Iran’s hopes for balance seem distant.
With Saudi Arabia and particularly the Saudi crown prince facing pressure over the killing of Khashoggi, it seems the Mirjaveh incident could create a new dynamic between the three countries. Iran has continually accused Saudi Arabia and the United States of supporting Jaish ul-Adl and its predecessor, Jundallah, and of creating instability in its Sistan and Baluchestan province. Aside from ideological affinities between the two groups, terrorist operations by Jaish ul-Adl and Jundallah have sometimes been concurrent with a climax in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
For instance, the April 2017 terrorist attack by Jaish ul-Adl, which led to the killing of 10 Iranian border guards, took place as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned Iran that he would take the fight inside Iran’s borders. Also, in 2010, Jundallah founder Abdolmalek Rigi, whose execution by Iran led to the emergence of Jaish ul-Adl, was reportedly detained while on a flight from the United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally. Since this is likely the prism through which Iran views Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's ties to Jaish ul-Adl, the Mirjaveh incident could impact the Tehran-Islamabad-Riyadh triangle in two ways.
First, Iran could promote the Oct. 16 kidnapping as another example of Saudi Arabia’s destabilizing behavior in the region. By doing so, Iran could increase the already high levels of pressure on Riyadh. Iran could also use the incident as leverage to pressure Pakistan to recalibrate its relations with Saudi Arabia. So far, however, this has not been the scenario.
Iran has made no reference to Saudi Arabia in its official stances. A letter from Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli to his Pakistani counterpart merely urged Pakistan to ensure the safety and health of the kidnapped Iranians. Only the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which, by the way, is not the most moderate group in Iran, claimed the operation was conducted by terrorist groups “backed by some aggressive countries of the region.” This is in contrast to last year’s terrorist attack by Jaish ul-Adl, when Iran quickly accused “some countries” of having a hand in the incident. Of further note, Iran has largely refrained from attacking Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi case, suggesting that Iran believes the situation will lead to a worsening of relations between Saudi Arabia and the West. In this equation, by largely remaining silent, Iran appears to want to keep its options open so it can use the situation to its advantage and relieve tensions with Saudi Arabia.
A second scenario is that Pakistan could use the Oct. 16 kidnapping as an opportunity to prove its goodwill toward Iran and show its impartiality with reference to the Iran-Saudi rivalry. The Pakistani army, and especially the Inter-Services Intelligence, have continuously been accused of having close ties with paramilitary groups in the region and utilizing these ties to advance their goals in neighboring countries. In this vein, no reports have surfaced of Jaish ul-Adl killing the kidnapped Iranian security personnel. Indeed, at least 12 of them are alive, according to pictures published by Jaish ul-Adl Oct. 22. Therefore, if the Pakistani army cooperates with Iranian security forces to secure their personnel's release, this will send a message that Pakistan intends to maintain the security of its border with Iran. It will also help rebuild the Pakistani army’s poor reputation in Tehran and give Iran some assurance about Islamabad’s commitment in preserving balance in its respective relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia.
As to which of these scenarios will unfold, it depends on the choices made by the players involved — especially Iran and Pakistan.