The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Hostage Crisis Risks Straining Iran-Pakistan Relations
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Forecast: Iranian efforts to secure Pakistani support for joint-military action against anti-regime terrorists may fail. Islamabad has so far refused to take action against anti-Iranian regime militant groups based in Pakistan after one of them kidnapped 12 Iranians whom it still holds hostage. This crisis is already straining relations between Islamabad and Tehran. It could lead Iran to conduct unilateral military operations in Pakistan and could well push Pakistan closer to Saudi Arabia.
Iranian diplomatic efforts to secure Pakistani participation in a joint rescue operation may fail. The anti-regime Salafi-jihadi terrorist group Jundullah and one of its splinter groups, the Army of Justice, have conducted numerous deadly attacks in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan Province for years. The Army of Justice formed in 2012 from Jundullah, which the U.S. Treasury Department designated as a terrorist organization in 2010. The Army of Justice raided an Iranian border outpost in southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan Province on October 16. The group kidnapped and has held captive 12 Iranian servicemen, many of whom were young conscripts. The Iranian hostages were still alive as of October 21, according to a post on the group’s Telegram account. The Iranian Foreign Ministry *called on Islamabad to take immediate action to free the hostages and to extradite those responsible to Iran. Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour *traveled to Pakistan on October 22 to consult with Pakistani security and military officials, *including Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. Pakpour discussed the hostage crisis and possible “joint actions” toward securing the Iran-Pakistan border. Iran and Pakistan have yet to take joint action in order to free the Iranian hostages.
IRGC forces may be preparing to take military action against the terrorists in Pakistan. An escalation in deadly border violence along Iran’s southeastern border may lead to Iran taking unilateral military action against the Army of Justice in Pakistan. Zahedan Parliamentarian Hossein Ali Shahryari *admonished Pakistan for its failure to secure its southwestern border and to curtail terrorists based there. Shahryari proposed that Iran conduct a ballistic missile strike against the Army of Justice in retaliation for the kidnapping. Iran has shown increased willingness to respond to insurgent-led border violence with unilateral military action in neighboring countries’ sovereign territory in the past year. The IRGC launched a ballistic missile strike into Iraqi Kurdistan against Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) targets on September 8. IRGC Aerospace Forces also launched a ballistic missile strike in eastern Syria on October 1 after an ISIS attack in southwestern Iran. Iranian forces have yet to go so far as to conduct a ballistic missile strike into Pakistani territory, but Iranian forces fired mortars into Pakistan on October 19. The shelling was likely intended to pressure local Baloch tribes with close ties to the Army of Justice to push for the release of the hostages. Pakpour *met with several Sunni Baloch tribal elders and clansmen on October 20 in an attempt to garner support and dispel sentiments of Sunni-Shia disunity following the kidnapping. Pakpour’s meeting concluded with tribal leaders issuing rebukes of the Army of Justice’s actions, most notably from the Iranian Rigi clan. A *member of the Rigi clan, the late Abdolmalek Rigi, founded Army of Justice-precursor organization, Jundullah.
Iranian forces could launch a ground operation to try to free the captive Iranians. Iranian officials have warned Pakistan in the past after similar incidents. Interior Minister Abdol Reza Rahmani Fazli threatened to send forces into Pakistan after the Army of Justice captured five Iranian border guards in February 2014. It remains unclear if Iranian forces have the ability to pull off such a risky operation, however. A rescue operation would prove particularly difficult if the hostages are being held deep inside Pakistan. Any Iranian ground operation in Balochistan would likely require coordination with local tribes. If conducted without prior permission from Islamabad, it could seriously harm Iranian-Pakistani relations.
The degradation of Tehran-Islamabad relations could strengthen Pakistan's drift toward Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan maintain strong military and economic relations, and Saudi Arabia recently agreed to lend Pakistan $6 billion to aid its struggling economy. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both Sunni Muslim countries, also fear Iranian Shia military expansionism and the prospects of a nuclear Iran. Tehran often accuses Saudi Arabia of funding anti-regime separatists to challenge regime security forces. Pakpour *exclaimed during his meeting with the tribal elders that the Army of Justice militants are “paid mercenaries” of Saudi Arabia that seek to “infiltrate” Iran. Pakistan has generally preferred to try to play both sides of the Iran-Saudi Arabia dispute, but Pakistan's perennial need for cash is driving it closer to Riyadh, especially on the eve of the reimposition of U.S. energy-related sanctions against Iran. The current crisis could damage the most meaningful working relationship between Tehran and Islamabad -- security cooperation. The Iranian regime faces pressure to take action that might drive a deeper wedge between it and its most powerful neighbor. It will be interesting to see how Tehran reacts.