Pak Iran Issue 2024
At around 6 p.m. on January 16, an Iranian air strike hit Sabz Koh, a remote hilly area in Balochistan’s Panjgur district. The attack destroyed several houses and a mosque and killed two children. Karim Dad, who lives in Sabz Koh, and his wife, along with their three children, were hurt. Karim’s boy Suleiman, who was 11 months old, and daughter Humaira, who was 6, were both killed.
The action went after two camps of the anti-Iran militant group Jaish al-Adl, according to the Iran-based Tasnim News Agency. Because of the attacks from Iran, Pakistan’s security forces “undertook a series of highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes against terrorist hideouts in Siestan-o-Baluchistan province of Iran,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country. These strikes happened on the night of January 17th through 18th. “During the intelligence-based operation, code-named ‘Marg Bar Sarmachar,’ a number of terrorists were killed,” the statement said.
The day before, Pakistan also said it would be recalling its minister from Iran, which was a first in international history. At a news conference in Islamabad on Wednesday, FO spokeswoman Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said, “Pakistan has decided to recall its ambassador from Iran, and the Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan, who is currently in Iran, may not return for the time being.
Mullah Hashim grew up in the nearby town of Sabz Koh, also known as “Green Mountain.” He was the second-in-command of the radical group Jaish al-Adl, which took over from Jundallah [Soldiers of God]. In the last few years, this group has attacked Iranian security troops several times in the southeastern province of Sistan-o-Baluchistan. Mullah Hashim was killed by Iranian security forces in 2018 in Sarawan, which is next to Iran.
People in Sabz Koh, where Iran began the airstrikes, thought at first that Pakistan’s security forces might be carrying out an operation because of all the noise and chaos. They didn’t find out until much later that it was an attack by Iran from family living abroad. People who moved to this small, remote town from the nearby country many years ago make up the majority of the population. A citizen of Panjgur named Shir Ahmad Shiran Naroui says that about 50 people live here full-time.
Naroui, who runs the Farsi news website Haal Vash [good news], has a lot of family in Sabz Koh, which is about 60 km inside Pakistani territory. He talked to this writer on Wednesday, while his family and friends were grieving their loss.
Pakistan’s reaction to this strike was unprecedented, given how big it was and when it happened: right after Iran began similar strikes in Iraq and Syria earlier this week, at a time when the region was in chaos. But this isn’t the first time an air strike has happened in Pakistan. There is a history of mistrust between the two countries that got worse when Jaish al-Adl formed in 2012.
Sunni extremism in Siestan-o-Baluchistan has grown since the Islamic revolution in 1979, when Tehran was very hard on the Baloch. Baloch people from Iran moved to Balochistan and Karachi long before the Iranian revolution. They were active in politics against the Shah of Iran. Over time, the diaspora became more religious, which made nationalism less important, which Iran and Pakistan saw as a threat in the 1970s. This is why, according to scholar and journalist Selig S. Harrison, the king of Iran, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, sent 30 Cobra gunships with Iranian pilots to help Islamabad during the Baloch incursion in Pakistan from 1973 to 1977. He did this because he was afraid that the Baloch uprising would spread to the 1.2 million Baloch who lived in eastern Iran.
In Iran and Pakistan in the 1970s, Baloch politics moved towards leftist ideas. In a time when capitalism and communism were at odds with each other around the world, Baloch patriots sided with communism. In the early 1970s, Progressive Baloch and Pakhtun leaders led Balochistan and the old North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) under the name of the National Awami Party (NAP). They were in charge of the areas until Zulfikar Ali Bhutto got rid of them in February 1973.
In her book Songs of Blood and Sword, Fatima Bhutto, who is Bhutto’s granddaughter, says that the Shah of Iran put “pressure” on Bhutto to get rid of the NAP provincial government because he was afraid of an armed Baloch movement in Iranian Baluchistan.
Baloch people in Iran in the 1970s were mostly secular patriots with communist leanings. But after General Ziaul Haq declared martial law in 1977, peace slowly grew between the government and the Baloch nationalists. This marked a change in the Iranian diaspora’s beliefs from nationalism to Sunni Islam.
Armed group Sipah-e-Rasool Allah (Army of the Prophet of Allah) was formed in the 1990s by an Iranian Baloch named Maula Bux Darakhshan. This group was the first to plan attacks from the Kech area in Balochistan into Siestan-o-Baluchistan in Iran.
Anti-Shia groups in Pakistan helped Mauluk, and by calling his work a “jihad,” he had a big impact on the religious side of the Baloch struggle against Iran. Along with setting up the Sipah-e-Rasool Allah, he also made the Kulahu property into a camp for Sunni Jihadists in the early 2000s.
When Mauluk died in 2006, his brother Mullah Omar Irani took over as leader of the Sipah-e-Rasool Allah and the property. Mullah Omar Irani kept fighting because he wanted to get back at Iran for killing his brother. On November 25, 2013, Iran fired its first rocket at Omar’s property in Kulahu, Kech, which is 45 miles (72 km) east of the border with Iran.
Mullah Omar Irani joined his Sipah-e-Rasool Allah with Jundullah, which was led by Abdul Malik Rigi, a young man who had grown up looking up to Mauluk. This was done to make the fight against Iran stronger.
Jandullah – Reason of tensions between Pakistan and Iran
Jundullah was created in 2002 to protect the rights of the Baloch community in a poor part of southeast Iran. It became well-known after an attempted attack on the car of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in December 2005 failed in Siestan-o-Baluchistan province. On March 16, 2006, Jundullah terrorists set up a checkpoint between Zahedan and Zabol. They dressed as cops and soldiers. They took 22 people off the ship and killed them. Because of this shocking event, Iran brought up Jundullah’s actions with Pakistani officials.
On June 14, 2008, the Pakistan government handed over Rigi’s brother Abdul Hamid, who had been arrested a few months earlier from Kech district’s Buleda and Turbat areas, in an attempt to build trust between the two countries. Abdul Hamid was hanged in Zahedan, the capital of Siestan-o-Baluchistan, on May 24, 2010.
The arrest and handover of Rigi’s brother by Pakistani authorities did not deter Jundullah. In October 2009, the group carried out a deadly bombing in Pishin, near Iran’s frontier with Pakistan, killing 43 people, including six commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. For the first time, Iran openly blamed Pakistan and the West for supporting Jundullah and Abdul Malik Rigi.
In February 2010, Tehran successfully captured Abdul Malik Rigi while he was on a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan. Although he was hanged in June of that year, Jundallah continued its activities under the leadership of al-Hajj Mohammed Dhahir Baluch from February 2010 to 2011.
Under Dhahir, the group claimed responsibility for the July 2010 bombings that killed more than 20 members of the Shia community in a mosque in Iran’s Zahedan, located in Siestan-o-Baluchistan. Similar attacks targeted multiple Shia Muslims in Chabahar in December 2010 and October 2012. Over time, Jundallah experienced a decline in strength.
Around that time, the Turbat-based Mullah Omar Irani, along with like-minded people, laid the foundation of Jaish al-Adl in 2012, which has now become a source of distrust between Pakistan and Iran.
The rise of Jaish al-Adl
Jaish al-Adl, also known as the Army of Justice, was established in 2012 in the border regions of Pakistan and Iran. Although its leadership remains largely unknown, it is widely believed that Mullah Omar Irani was one of its key founders. The group came into the spotlight after a roadside bomb in Saravan killed 13 Revolutionary Guards in October 2013.
In response, for the first time, Iran fired a deadly missile at Kulahu, the compound run by Mullah Omar Irani in Kech one month after the Saravan bombings. Mullah Omar survived, though his house and an adjacent mosque were damaged.
The cycle of violence continued. In February 2014, Jaish al-Adl kidnapped four Iranian soldiers and allegedly brought them into Pakistan, prompting accusations from Iran about Pakistan’s failure to control cross-border infiltration. Iran threatened to send troops into Pakistan if the soldiers were not released. The soldiers were eventually released in April of that year.
In October 2014, a botched attack by Jaish al-Adl resulted in the deaths of four Iranian security forces members in Saravan. This time, Brigadier General Hussein Salami of Saravan threatened to send troops into Pakistan if it failed to rein in Jaish al-Adl. By March 2016, the situation had further intensified, with Pakistan also accusing Iran of providing shelter to Baloch separatists involved in an insurgency in Pakistan following the arrest of Kulbushan Jadhav, a retired Indian navy officer in the Mashkel area of Balochistan, near the Iranian border.
Tensions rose further when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans to build and operate the Chabahar port during his visit to Iran in May 2016. Iran started viewing Gwadar as a competitor to its Chabahar port. The blame game escalated, with Iran launching rockets into Pakistan’s border towns. In July 2017, Iran fired a barrage of rockets into Panjgur.
In June 2017, the Foreign Office for the first time confirmed that the Pakistan Air Force had shot down an Iranian drone flying in Pakistan’s Panjgur territory. In July 2019, Pakistani forces seized an Iranian spy drone in Chagai, further aggravating the blame game. Despite the ongoing tensions, Pakistan refrained from escalating the situation; rather, attempting to calm the situation diplomatically.
Mistrust between Pakistan and Iran
On a November evening in 2020, Turbat police allegedly shot dead Iran’s most-wanted militant leader, Mullah Omar Irani, along with his two sons in an alleged encounter, just two days after Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif visited Islamabad. Mullah Irani had been in hiding in Turbat’s posh Satellite Town, according to the police.
But this blame game is no longer a one-sided now. In January, April and June 2023, Pakistan accused Iran of being behind three attacks in Pakistan launched by Baloch separatists. In April 2019, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the then foreign minister, accused Iran of providing bases to Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS), an umbrella organisation of Baloch separatist groups that attacked a bus in Balochistan, killing 14 passengers.
Despite the ongoing blame game, Pakistan’s security forces assisted in safely recovering nine Iranian border guards out of 12 who were abducted by militants from the Lulakdan area near the Pak-Iran border in October 2018. This was followed by the killing of Mullah Irani.
In spite of these overtures, the mistrust continued to run deep.
The intrusions by Iran on Tuesday evening were unprecedented and more lethal compared to past attacks. The strike may have been prompted by the attacks on the Iranian town of Rask in December by Jaish al-Adl, in which 11 Iranian security personnel were killed.
Since February 2021, Siestan-o-Baluchistan has witnessed heightened tensions following the killing of 10 Baloch fuel carriers by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards near Saravan. The region saw widespread protests, which gained momentum after the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022. To quell the protests, Iran executed at least 354 people, including six women, in the first half of 2023.
According to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHRNGO), Baloch minorities comprised 20 per cent of all executions. These actions have garnered even more support for Jaish al-Adl. As a result, the terrorist outfit has increased its attacks on Iranian forces.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has a complex relationship with its Baloch population with an escalation in the Baloch insurgency over the years. However, Iran no longer perceives Baloch nationalism within Pakistan as a threat, as it does not advocate for a greater Balochistan and it poses no threat to the Iranian regime.
Likewise, Pakistan doesn’t feel threatened by Iran-based Baloch militants since they no longer align with a nationalist ideology but a sectarian one. The shift in militant ideologies, coupled with the economic interests of both countries due to Gwadar and Chabahar, Pakistan’s increasing collaborations with Gulf states and the United States, and the challenging conditions of the long-porous border affected by harsh climates, has heightened tensions between the two states. This situation is likely to stay restive unless both countries reconsider their treatment of their respective Baloch populations.