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Pakistan boosts Iran border security, maintains balance with Riyadh

Following several terrorist attacks along the Pakistan-Iran border, both countries are discussing security measures, while Pakistan tries to maintain its relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Pakistani soldiers wear facemasks on the closed border of Pakistan-Iran in Taftan, as fears over the spread of the coronavirus escalate following an outbreak in neighboring Iran, Feb. 25, 2020.

Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi traveled to Islamabad last week to discuss a series of attacks on Pakistani security posts along the Pakistan-Iran border. The first attack happened Jan. 25 at Kech, not far from Gwadar port, followed by two more Feb. 2 at Panjgur and Noshki. As usual, the Baloch Liberation Army claimed responsibility. The insurgents were highly trained, and in the Feb. 2 attacks a 70-hour operation was required to clear out both locations.

After investigations, Islamabad discovered that the attacks were being launched from across its borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Therefore, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed invited his counterpart Vahidi to visit and help find a solution. Vahidi met with the civil and military leadership and “strongly condemned the recent terror attacks in Pakistan and said his country considers terrorist attacks in Pakistan attacks on Iran,” according to a statement released by Ahmed.

Referring to the Pakistan-Iran border as “a border of peace and friendship,” Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, said that collective efforts were needed to deny space to miscreants. Vahidi agreed that stability in Afghanistan was a “collective regional responsibility.” Also present at the meetings were Brig. Gen. Ahmad Ali Goudarzi, commander of the Iranian border guards; Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Ali Hosseini; and the Iranian military attache, Col. Mostafa Ghanbarpour.

It was decided to complete “fencing work on the Pakistan-Iran border at the earliest [and] it was agreed that the territory of Pakistan and Iran should not be used for terrorist activities against each other,” the statement continued. In addition, markets would be set up along the border to help in the economic uplift of people on both sides and joint working groups would be formed to look after border management.

However, just a week before Vahidi’s visit, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Naif was also invited to Islamabad to discuss the regional situation, security challenges and various bilateral matters. This meeting has also been described as in line with Islamabad’s tilt toward Riyadh after attacks on its border with Iran.

But this is not the first time that attacks have happened along the nearly 600-mile Pakistan-Iran border, and both Tehran and Islamabad have had their security personnel targeted by armed groups in recent years.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, told Al-Monitor, “Anti-state insurgents often benefit from cross-border sanctuaries, where they are better protected from the states they target. In this sense, it makes sense that anti-Pakistan militants that operate in Baluchistan would feel more comfortable being based across Pakistan's western border — in Iran.”

To prevent such incidents, he said, “Iran and Pakistan need a more robust border security regime, so that there can be more joint management of border threats. While the two are keen to pursue more joint border cooperation, it appears that Pakistan has for now opted for a unilateral solution that entails fencing its border with Iran. But this is not a sustainable solution, given that it will take time to do this fencing and many cross-border attacks could happen in the meantime. A formal dialogue process, where each side can regularly discuss how to strengthen border security, would offer a more long-lasting solution.”

Kugelman added, “Fresh Iran-Pakistan border tensions offer an opening for the Saudis, and they will seek to capitalize — even though Islamabad has made clear that despite its close partnership with Riyadh, it will remain a neutral player in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and wants workable relations with Tehran.”

Moreover, the Pakistani province of Baluchistan has borders with Afghanistan as well. Therefore, it is possible the Baloch Liberation Army could work with terror outfits across the Afghan side.

Zeeshan Shah, political observer and financial analyst in Washington at the Finra Foundation, told Al-Monitor, “It is more likely that the Baloch separatists are making cause with the [Pakistani Taliban] due to the similar tactics both groups have used recently as well as using similar equipment — night vision goggles and long-range snipers — which were abandoned by the Americans when they left Afghanistan.”

He noted, “The part of Afghanistan that borders Baluchistan has really never been solidly under control of any Afghan government, providing a perfect staging area for hideouts and the like.”

Meanwhile, Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington and author of a book on Iran-Pakistan ties, told Al-Monitor, “There is no evidence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps wanting to support the attacks inside Pakistan. The trend has been to respect Pakistan's sovereignty and Iran does not want confrontation. I would not say that the Iranian regime does not have the potential, but it would not wish to get involved in this matter. As Iran has a potential Sunni militant problem itself, it does not make sense for it to support any sectarian — or separatist — movement.”

Connecting the revival of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with regional stability, a European diplomat posted in Islamabad told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Though both countries have accused each other of harboring terrorist groups within their respective border provinces in the past, in the context of the recent terrorist attack in Baluchistan I do not think that, on the eve of a possible revival of the JCPOA, Tehran has an interest in undermining somehow the relationship with Islamabad.”

He said, “The fact that Vahidi — a former commander of the Quds Force — made an official visit to Islamabad just one week after the visit of the Saudi interior minister confirms that Tehran is willing to respond to the perceived growing Saudi influence in the country.” 

The diplomat noted, “Tehran is interested in keeping the dialogue on Afghanistan open also because it needs Pakistan’s support to contain Islamic State-Khorasan province, as its presence at the border with Iran has recently been detected. A revival of the JCPOA, a positive development on the Yemen war [though difficult at this stage] and a continuation of talks in Baghdad between Tehran and Riyadh [the outcome of the last two being directly related to the first], could pave the way for an exit from the dilemma of the ‘zero sum game’ in which the two regional powers have been involved. Reducing US pressure on Iran would enable Islamabad to cooperate with both countries in political and economic terms.”

In any case, Islamabad has no reason to abandon its decades-old foreign policy of keeping a balance between Tehran and Riyadh. Pakistan is too intricately linked to both countries.

With 2.7 million Pakistani citizens living and working in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has become Islamabad’s largest remittance source. Both countries have had strategic and defense ties for decades and Pakistan is an important member of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition.

Meanwhile, the second-largest Shiite population after Iran is in Pakistan, comprising 10%-15% of Pakistan's population. Being neighbors, there are immense opportunities for trade and a gas pipeline from Iran lies pending due to sanctions. Since 2019, military relations are closer and a joint rapid reaction border force has also been created.

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