Iran–Pakistan tensions: Why further escalation is unlikely

Despite fears that Iran–Pakistan strikes would see spillover of conflict from the Middle East, the situation remains relatively self-contained.

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The recent escalation of tensions between Iran and Pakistan has fuelled concerns of a potential spillover of conflict from the Middle East into South Asia. Events in recent months have highlighted Iran’s role as a volatile geopolitical actor through its support for regional proxies like Hamas and the Houthis.  

Events in recent months have highlighted Iran’s role as a volatile geopolitical actor through its support for regional proxies like Hamas and the Houthis.  

But on 16 January, Iran took direct action and carried out attacks on alleged strongholds of the militant group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, which borders Iran. Pakistan responded two days later with its own air strikes on several targets in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province with the aim of targeting alleged safe havens and sanctuaries of the Baluchistan Liberation Army and Baluchistan Liberation Front. Both sides claimed there were civilian casualties.

In response, Islamabad recalled its ambassador from Tehran and barred the return of the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan, although both sides have since agreed to restore diplomatic ties. Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, will visit Pakistan at the end of January in a further effort to re-normalize relations.

Calibrated response

Despite fears these developments would open a new front in the ongoing conflict and instability in the Middle East, both parties have maintained a relatively calibrated response so far. Both countries’ foreign ministries have stated their actions targeted insurgents sheltering within the other country’s territory, not the state itself.

This shows that Iran’s actions towards Pakistan are not directly connected to its actions in the Middle East and wider geopolitical developments. Neither country wants a broader conflict; Iran has its hands full on several fronts while Pakistan is dealing with a dire economic situation and preparing for next month’s general election.

Iran’s actions towards Pakistan are not directly connected to its actions in the Middle East and wider geopolitical developments.

Unlike Pakistan’s chronic instabilities with its neighbours India and Afghanistan, relations with Iran have been relatively stable. Hours before Iran’s air strikes, Pakistan’s interim prime minister, Anwar ul-Haq Kakar, met with Iran’s foreign minister on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. On the same day, the two countries conducted joint naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.

Pakistan and Iran have also worked together to stabilize Afghanistan, although Islamabad has tended to support ethnic Pashtun Sunni majority groups while Tehran has thrown its weight behind the Persian-speaking Tajik and predominantly Shia Hazara community. Prior to the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the two countries backed opposing sides in the Afghan civil war, with Pakistan supporting the Taliban while Iran backed the Northern Alliance.

Baluch roots

Although the scale of the most recent hostilities was unprecedented, tensions and border skirmishes are nothing new. Iran and Pakistan have long accused each other of allowing their territory to be used for insurgent attacks across their 900 km border. At the centre of these hostilities are several groups fighting for the rights of the ethnic Baluch population in both countries – although there are distinct differences in these insurgencies.  

At the centre of these hostilities are several groups fighting for the rights of the ethnic Baluch population in both countries.

The insurgency on the Iranian side of the border has Sunni Islamist roots and is led by the Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated group, Jaish al-Adl (JuA), which was established in 2012. Both JuA and its predecessor, the now-dissolved al-Qaeda-affiliated Jundullah, have carried out a string of attacks on Iran. A terrorist attack on 3 January in Kerman, which killed over 80 people and was attributed to ISIS, crossed a red line for Tehran, triggering the strikes against Iraq, Syria and Pakistan.

In Pakistan, the Baluch insurgency has more secular nationalist roots and can be traced to the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 and calls for an autonomous or independent Baluch state. The most recent insurgency erupted following the US invasion of Afghanistan when several Pakistan-backed militant groups in neighbouring Afghanistan relocated to Baluchistan, challenging traditional power structures in the resource-rich but sparsely populated and impoverished province.

Is there a risk of accidental escalation?

While neither side wants a wider conflict, there is a latent risk of accidental escalation, particularly as both sides seek to burnish their national security credentials. Iran is eager to show that it is protecting its sovereignty, particularly in a region where the regime’s legitimacy has long been under threat. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s retaliation to Iran’s attacks has helped boost the image of its military, which was tarnished when popular leader Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister in 2022 after falling out of favour with the military and intelligence services.

How Iran–Pakistan tensions impact relations with third parties will be key to how the situation evolves.

How Iran–Pakistan tensions impact relations with third parties will be key to how the situation evolves. Iran’s airstrikes followed a visit by India’s foreign minister, S Jaishankar, to Tehran earlier in the week. The timing of this could fuel Islamabad’s longstanding narrative that India is seeking to encircle Pakistan through deepening relations with neighbouring countries and support for the Baluch insurgency. India and Iran have been pursuing a deepening strategic partnership and Jaishankar’s visit reaffirmed this. His visit also saw progress on the Chahbahar port project, developed by India and Iran as a regional transit hub and competing with other regional port projects, including the China-funded Gwadar port in Pakistan.

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Meanwhile, China maintains close relations with both Pakistan and Iran so is well placed to mediate tensions, in the same way it helped facilitate the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2023. During a press conference, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry expressed Beijing’s willingness to play a ‘constructive role in cooling down the situation’.

China maintains close relations with both Pakistan and Iran so is well placed to mediate tensions.

Pakistan’s strategic significance to the West has diminished following the 2021 US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Islamabad could see recent developments as a means of facilitating a renewed alignment of interests between Pakistan and the West against Iran.

Sunni Arab Gulf states have also been longtime supporters of Pakistan. As such, any escalation of tensions between Iran and Pakistan could fuel speculation in Tehran of Pakistan emerging as a pawn in a wider conflict between Iran and its regional proxies on the one side and Israel, the West and Arab states on the other.

For now, it appears unlikely tensions will escalate further as Islamabad and Tehran remain focused on neutralizing the Baluch insurgencies within their own borders rather than targeting each other. In contrast with the interconnected nature of conflict and instability in the Middle East, tensions between Iran and Pakistan are relatively self-contained and unlikely to spill over into neighbouring countries and the wider South Asia region.