Iran has expanded its soft power strategy in Pakistan particularly in Balochistan through its political, economic and proxy tools. Tehran has started to exercise it’s at multiple levels its influence and this influence is definitely becoming a nuisance for Pakistan.
Balochistan is the immediate periphery of Iran to its South. Iran has strategized a dual approach to cover its stealth security dimension: one hand, Tehran has dealt with iron hand Sunni Iranian Baloch separatists in its Sistan Balochistan; on the other hand, it has started to hedge Pakistani Baloch militants. For example, the recent terrorist incidents in Ketch, Noshki and Panjgur, have involved militants originating from Iran-based sanctuaries. After the fall of Afghanistan, ethnic Baloch insurgents have moved from Kandhar, Helmand and Nimroz and Farah to Iran’s Sistan Balochistan region.
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What is actually happening?
Baloch separatist leader Dr. Allah Nazar is believed to be having sanctuary, succor and financial support in Iran. Most such groups operate along the Iranian border so they can easily disappear into Iran after militant activities in Balochistan. That they can not operate out of Iranian territory without the full knowledge and complicity of the Iranian deep state is a pertinent question.
Al Zainaboon,/AL Fatimayoon (trained and raised by Iran for propping up of Syrian front) and Qasim group have recently been activated and they are highly likely to create a law and order situation. Last week a group linked with the above network was busted in Karachi and their footprints were traced to the Iranian deep state.
Smuggling is another big challenge from Iran harming the national economy from oil to soap industry; one estimate is that up to $2 billion dollars are its net worth. A significant local population also depends on it as the Govt fails to provide livelihood and as such a complete curb will make more youth available for militancy–a balancing act is needed to check to smuggle through.
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The significance of Gwadar for Tehran
Tehran’s strategic planners have always looked upon Gwadar as a rival port undercutting Chabahar and an alternative hub giving access to warm water and the markets of the Middle East for China and Russia. Iran thinks it is a natural conduit for such nations to link up with ME and beyond. Not allowing Gwadar to develop it into a full-blown economic and strategic port is one major concern in Iranian thinking, long overlooked by policymakers in Islamabad.
Iranian soft intrusion and its impact on Balochistan particularly leverage on the Shia population is alarming: From a university professor to a political activist, they enjoy a degree of Iranian support i.e., cultural tours and financial support among them. The local Iranian lobbies coordinate mostly such activities and later on hand over to Iranian intel for engagement and debriefing. Not in the distant past, the Hazara community’s set in was called off to bury their dead after the special appeal of the Iranian Religious establishment.
The local Afghan refugees particularly from the Hazara community come from Afghanistan and utilize local support and links to obtain IDs just like Pashtun refugees from Afghanistan get support from PKMAP and ANP in rehabilitating. So they start visiting Iran and make themselves available for recruitment and other Iranian-induced activities. The porous border makes it easy for criminals and militant groups like Al Zainaboon,/AL Fatimayoon and Qasim forces to disappear and hide footprints.
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Threats being faced by Afghanistan
Since Afghanistan is also the operating base for the likes of ISIS to launch attacks in Balochistan, the NDS and the RAW were 25 kilometers away from the Chaman border to penetrate into Balochistan till recently. Even after the Taliban control, the fluid situation between the triangular borders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan often spills over into violence in Balochistan.
However, the overriding thrust of Iranian influence is its indirect complicity to put up with India’s intelligence network operating out of Chabahar Port that makes Balochistan on the boil and helps sustain militancy. It also provides plausible deniability to Iran’s deep state. The Chabahar port is a major hub of Indian RAW running networks like Kulbhushan Yadav across Pakistan from Quetta to Karachi.
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Smuggling routes of the Iranian border makes it easier for RAW to intrude its proxy elements and this is one such reason Iran has been opposing fencing of the border by Pakistan. Collaboration between the Iranian Deep State and RAW is so deep that RAW officers shadow Iranian intel officers in Chabahar for effective coordination and benefiting Iranian links and leverages and its influence operations in Quetta.
While the Iranian dynamic in Balochistan is a growing challenge, Policymakers in Islamabad aptly do not want to make an enemy out of Iran–a neighboring state with which Islamabad has no border dispute. Yet passive policy posture does not mean being oblivious to the adverse impact of a new ground reality–Tehran’s influence operations in Balochistan and its Baloch militant sanctuary across its southern and eastern borders. Islamabad needs to expand its strategic dimension in a pushback to blunt the latest Iranian leverage of sanctuary and hedging Baloch separatism so that post–CPEC Balochistan does not become a grey zone for Tehran’s proxies.
Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.