January 22, 2024
ISLAMABAD – Both Iran’s attack and Pakistan’s response were unprecedented, given their scale and timing against the backdrop of a region in crisis.
On January 16, at around 6pm, an Iranian air strike targeted Sabz Koh, a remote, mountainous area in Balochistan’s Panjgur district, killing two children and injuring three other civilians besides damaging several homes and a mosque. The injured include three daughters of Karim Dad, a resident of Sabz Koh, as well as his wife. Karim’s 11-month-old son Suleiman and six-year-old daughter Humaira were killed.
Iran-based Tasnim News Agency reported that the operation targeted two bases of anti-Iran militant group, Jaish al-Adl. Responding to the Iranian attacks, Pakistan’s security forces on the night between January 17 and 18 “undertook a series of highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes against terrorist hideouts in Siestan-o-Baluchistan province of Iran,” said the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “A number of terrorists were killed during the intelligence-based operation — code-named ‘Marg Bar Sarmachar’,” it added.
A day earlier, Pakistan had also announced its decision to recall its ambassador from Iran in an unprecedented diplomatic move. “Pakistan has decided to recall its ambassador from Iran, and the Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan, currently visiting Iran, may not return for the time being,” said FO spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch during a press briefing in Islamabad on Wednesday.
Sabz Koh [Green Mountain], a bordering town, is the hometown of Mullah Hashim, the former second-in-command of Jaish al-Adl — a successor to the extremist group, Jundallah [Soldiers of God]. This group has carried out a spate of attacks on Iranian security forces in recent years in the southeastern province of Siestan-o-Baluchistan. Mullah Hashim was killed by Iranian security forces in Sarawan, bordering Iran in 2018.
In Sabz Koh, where Iran launched the air strikes, residents initially suspected based on the noise and commotion that Pakistan’s security forces may have been carrying out an operation. Only later did they learn from relatives abroad that it was an attack launched by Iran. This small, remote village is predominantly inhabited by people who migrated from the neighbouring country many years ago. Approximately 50 families live here permanently, according to Shir Ahmad Shiran Naroui, a resident of Panjgur.
Naroui, who runs the Farsi online channel, Haal Vash [good news], has many relatives in Sabz Koh, located approximately 60km inside the Pakistani border and spoke to this writer on Wednesday as his family and friends mourned their loss.
Pakistan’s response to this strike was unprecedented, given its scale and timing against the backdrop of a region in crisis, and occurring shortly after Iran launched similar strikes in Iraq and Syria earlier this week. But this is hardly the first air strike in Pakistan — there is, in fact, a history of mistrust between the two countries which took an uglier turn with the emergence of Jaish al-Adl in 2012.
History of strife
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Tehran’s harsh treatment of the Baloch has fuelled Sunni radicalism in Siestan-o-Baluchistan. Even before the Iranian revolution, ethnic Baloch from Iran migrated to Balochistan and Karachi, engaging in political activities against the Shah of Iran. Over time, the diaspora turned more religious, diminishing the once-prominent factor of nationalism seen as a challenge by Iran and Pakistan in the 1970s. This is why the king of Iran, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, fearing the Baloch insurgency’s potential spread to the 1.2 million Baloch residing in eastern Iran, sent 30 Cobra gunships with Iranian pilots to assist Islamabad during the Baloch incursion in Pakistan from 1973 to 1977, as noted by scholar and journalist, Selig S. Harrison.
In the 1970s, Baloch politics in Iran and Pakistan trended towards leftist ideologies. Amid the global tension between capitalism and communism, Baloch nationalists aligned themselves with the communist school of thought. Progressive Baloch and Pakhtun leaders, under the banner of National Awami Party (NAP), briefly governed Balochistan and the former North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the early 1970s until Zulfikar Ali Bhutto disbanded the NAP government in February 1973.
In her book, Songs of Blood and Sword, Fatima Bhutto, Bhutto’s granddaughter, suggests that Bhutto’s dissolution of the NAP provincial government was influenced by “pressure from the Shah of Iran”, who feared the rise of an armed Baloch movement in Iranian Baluchistan.
During the 1970s, the Baloch in Iran were predominantly secular nationalists with communist leanings. However, after General Ziaul Haq’s imposition of martial law in 1977, a gradual reconciliation occurred with the Baloch nationalists, marking a shift in the Iranian diaspora’s orientation from nationalism to Sunni Islam.
The militant group, Sipah-e-Rasool Allah (Army of the Prophet of Allah), emerged in the 1990s under Maula Bux Darakhshan, an Iranian Baloch. This group was the first to organise cross-border incursions from Balochistan’s Kech district into Iran’s Siestan-o-Baluchistan.
Mauluk found support from anti-Shia groups in Pakistan, significantly shaping the religious dimension of the Baloch resistance against Iran, by framing his efforts as a ‘jihad’. In addition to his establishing the Sipah-e-Rasool Allah, he set up a camp for Sunni Jihadists at the Kulahu compound in the early 2000s.
Mauluk’s death in 2006 led to his brother, Mullah Omar Irani, assuming the leadership of the Sipah-e-Rasool Allah and the compound. Motivated by the desire to avenge his brother, executed by Iran, Mullah Omar Irani continued the struggle. Omar’s compound in Kulahu, Kech, situated 45 miles (72km) east of the Iran border, was the target of the first Iranian missile strike on Nov 25, 2013.
To build up the fight against Iran, Mullah Omar Irani merged his Sipah-e-Rasool Allah with Jundullah, led by Abdul Malik Rigi, a young man who had grown under the influence of Mauluk.
Jundullah — a cause of mistrust between Pakistan and Iran
Founded in 2002 to defend the Baloch minority’s rights in the impoverished region of southeast Iran, Jundullah gained prominence after a failed attack in December 2005 on the motorcade of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Siestan-o-Baluchistan province. On March 16, 2006, Jundullah militants, dressed as police and military personnel, set up a checkpoint between Zahedan and Zabol. They offloaded 22 passengers and killed them. This shocking incident led Iran to raise Jundullah’s activities 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 runs deep
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.