In an era marked by escalating geopolitical tensions and internal strife, Pakistan and Iran find themselves at a crucial juncture, grappling with a complex web of socio-economic, security, and political challenges that threaten the stability and prosperity of their respective nations. The intricate relationship between Pakistan and Iran was threatened in January 2024 as the two nations exchanged missiles strikes followed quickly by de-escalation. The two nations historically allied during the Cold War but whose paths have since diverged amidst regional conflicts and shifting alliances. Recent skirmishes underscore the fragility of their relationship, yet also highlight an underlying desire to avoid escalation. After a series of tit-for-tat missile strikes against militant targets across their shared border, Iran and Pakistan have agreed to de-escalate tensions, calming the volatile situation and saving the region from a confrontation that could have spelt disaster for both countries.
Pakistan faces a dizzying array of socio-economic, security and political challenges. The country’s next general elections are scheduled for February 8, but are obviously neither free nor fair. Imran Khan, the former prime minister until his removal from office under controversial circumstances in 2022, has been disqualified from the ballot; his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), was stripped of its electoral symbol, forcing its candidates to compete as independents. Many Pakistanis view the election as a coronation of sorts for the country’s powerful civil-military establishment, perhaps best symbolized by the return from exile of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. As Pakistanis prepare to go to the polls, the country is struggling with the resurgence of terrorism due to the government’s inability to rein in cross-border militancy from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s relations with India also remain tense. Against the backdrop of these complex challenges, the last thing policymakers in Islamabad could have wanted was a sudden flare-up of tensions along Pakistan’s border with Iran.
The Iranian regime, too, is under great pressure. Social friction continues to grow at home, despite the repressive tactics of the hardline government. Iran is also facing lingering economic woes. Tehran has not been able to ease interactional sanctions or make any progress on restoring a nuclear deal with the United States, so the country’s economic struggles are likely to continue. Instead, Iran is now facing increased threats of retaliation due attacks by Iranian proxies in Iraq on U.S. bases and Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen attacks on Western merchant ships in the Red Sea. In northeastern Jordan, a Iranian-backed militants launched a drone that struck a U.S. outpost near the Syrian border and killed three U.S. soldiers, leading the Biden administration to strike Iranian-linked targets throughout Iraq and Syria. With these tensions at the forefront, Iran can ill afford to engage in prolonged skirmishes with Pakistan.
Following its first round of strikes within Pakistan on January 16, Iran claimed that it had specifically targeted militants linked to Jaish-ul-Adal, an offshoot of another Sunni militant outfit, Jandullah. Pakistan and Iran have had minor border tensions in the past due to the presence of Sunni militants operating along the largely lawless 900-kilometer border, which separates Iran from the restive Pakistani province of Balochistan. Pakistan, in turn, retaliated by launching a missile which targeted ethnic Baluch separatist militants within Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. While both sides blamed the other for collateral damage, they also issued conciliatory statements indicating that neither sought to stoke cross-border tensions further.
A Complicated Past
While Iran and Pakistan collaborated closely at the height of the Cold War, the two nations’ relations became far more tenuous after the Iranian Revolution. Pakistan has suffered significantly from the underlying proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—particularly after the emergence of hundreds of extremist Sunni Deobandi madrassas within Pakistan, which served to train “mujahideen” to repel the Soviet invaders. After the Kremlin withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the civil war continued and many Pakistani militants returned to Pakistan, carrying out an insurgency against Islamabad in the mountainous northwestern region. In Afghanistan, Islamabad and Tehran found themselves backing opposing groups; Iran and India jointly supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, while Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE decided to recognize the Taliban regime in the late 1990s.
Pakistani and Iranian interests have converged more over time, however. Both states have strained but concrete relations with the new Taliban regime. Pakistan has no formal relations with Israel, and, unlike India, is quite sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. While sectarian violence within Pakistan remains a problem, it is not being fueled by Iran. Both Iran and Pakistan are close partners with China, which has invested billions of dollars in both countries and linked them to its Belt and Road Initiative. Thus, it is not surprising that while the United States strongly condemned Iran’s attacks on Pakistani soil, China simply advised caution and restraint.
The Way Forward
In this saga, cooler heads seem to have prevailed on both sides. After recalling their respective ambassadors, Iran and Pakistan have resumed high-level diplomacy. The Iranian Foreign Minister recently concluded a visit to Pakistan, and both countries have vowed to collaborate more closely to contend with cross-border militants which, after all, represent a threat to both governments. Iran and Pakistan have never disputed the border demarcation between them, meaning that leaders can avoid the political posturing that would otherwise make curbing cross-border militancy extremely difficult. Both states should capitalize on positive momentum gathered over recent weeks to regularize and expand trade in their recently operationalized border markets. Doing so would bring economic benefits to the local populace on both sides, which would be a much more judicious way of addressing grievances and preventing terrorism than heavy-handed police measures—or missile strikes.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.