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Should Iran blame ISI while it helps RAW against Pakistan? – Jan Achakzai

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Jan Achakzai |

Pakistan has successfully locked in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council into a geo-economic alliance after starting to serve as an important hub for Chinese and Russian investment leveraging the flagship project of the BRI—CPEC. However, given Saudi-Iran rivalry, Islamabad is facing a challenge in balancing its Iran ties.

Iran’s recent angry outburst against Pakistan followed after the Military Advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader; Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi blamed ISI directly for supporting the terrorist groups acting against Iran.

Pakistan’s big picture with Iran is clear: it has 900 km border with Tehran so cannot afford Iran as an enemy after hostile Indian and  Afghan borders hence are not beneficiary in annoying Tehran. 

Earlier, while a bus carrying security personnel of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on February 13 in the region between the cities of Zahedan and Khash in the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan province bordering Pakistan– an explosives-laden car rammed into the bus killing 27 soldiers and injuring 13 others. A shadowy organization purportedly called itself the Jaish ul-Adl took responsibility for the incident.

Why does the Blast Qualify as “False Flag” Operation?

Iran’s blame against the ISI came as a surprise raising many questions: how come Iran is so sure of the ISI’s involvement? Why Tehran did not entertain the possibility of an Indian hand beyond this incident? And why Iran did not take into account the fact that RAW has been operating out of Baluchistan and involved in false flag operations?

Read more: Iran-KSA diplomatic row: Where does Pakistan stand?

Following are the reasons which defy the underlying logic of Pakistan’s alleged involvement in the blast:

  1. Why Pakistan would want to undermine its relations with Iran at a time when it needs Tehran’s supporting role (not spoiler’s role) in Afghanistan.
  2. Islamabad, particularly the Army Chief Gen Bajwa worked very hard to improve ties with Iran.
  3. Pakistan’s policymakers are very much convinced that Islamabad belongs to this region and it took more than 10 years to restore credibility in the eyes of Iran and Russia for forging close relations and for its quest to pivot to Euro-Asia.
  4. Any attempt of undermining Iran means potentially undermining the Entente Cordiale, Pakistan pain strikingly achieved with Russia.
  5. Upsetting China—which sees Iran as long term important friendly country to connect with its ambitious  BRI project—is not in Pakistan’s interest; in other words, whatever concerns Pakistan may have with Iran, they may not be necessarily shared by the China which has much bigger priorities as a rising world power.
  6. Any kinetic operation by the ISI in Iran will never get approval a) when Pakistan itself is vulnerable [read Baluchistan] b) having Iranian leverage against its second largest Shia population and c) Shia community has respectable representation at the top echelon of the inclusive Pakistan army forces which will never be bypassed nor behind its back any approval will be granted for any such operation on Iranian soil.
  7. The proximity factor also precludes the ISI of doing any such operation next door to Pakistan’s Baluchistan province (e.g., Sistan/Baluchistan).
  8. The predecessor of the blamed militant outfit was neutralized by the ISI and its leader Ragi was handed over to Iran.
  9. The incident happens on a very unfortunate time when Pakistan is trying to pull off Afghan reconciliation and many spoilers do not want to see Islamabad succeed.
  10. How come Tehran is so sure that this is not a “false flag” operation, when the Indian Intelligence Agency, RAW, is very much active in Pakistani’s Baluchistan border region; after all, it burnt down the province (Baluchistan) in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack in 2008; therefore, the fact that it has the hallmark of the RAW’s false flag operation could not be ruled out.
  11. Pakistan’s big picture with Iran is clear: it has 900 km border with Tehran so cannot afford Iran as an enemy after hostile Indian and Afghan borders hence are not beneficiary in annoying Tehran.
Concerns of Both Sides

There are concerns definitely both countries would have from each other but they will never force the two countries to cross each other’s red lines: strategic restraint which both countries exercise against each other, and the understanding of each other’s shared limits.

Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Bajwa has been very active to normalize relations with Iran since taking over: several high-level visits by him led to concrete progress on putting in place border management mechanisms.

To Zoom in, here are Iranian Concerns
  1. As Saudi Arabia—Tehran’s arch-rival—will be heavily invested in Baluchistan, Gwadar, Iran fears linking Chabahar with the Gwadar may not materialize.
  2. Iran sees the KSA as a sponsor of proxy groups in the border region with Pakistan.
  • Tehran’s focus on the Persian Gulf and Pakistan’s focus on Afghanistan and India divides Pakistan and Iran on the issues like Yemen, the RAW in Chabahar, for example.
  1. Pakistan’s leadership input for Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).
Where Pakistan is Concerned
  1. Iran’s support for rival Taliban group in Afghanistan to reduce Pakistan’s leverage on the Taliban.
  2. Dislodging Pakistan with the help of India via Chabahar port in Afghanistan.
  3. Strategic convergence with India allowing the use of ports to attack Pakistan in case of Delhi goes to war with Islamabad.
  4. Spurring Baloch separatism by looking the other way towards RAW’s heavy footprints in Chabahar.
  5. Use of Lyari gangs: Uzair Baloch’s Iranian passport is a case in point.
  6. Recruitment of Pakistan’s Hazaras youth as a proxy in Syrian theatre.
  7. Fear of opening bridges (covert or partly overt or fully overt) to Israel by Pakistan.
  8. Convergence with India and its proxy groups to limit Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and increase India’s presence there.

Read more: Pakistan loops in KSA into perfect alliance: India anxious & Iran…

On both sides, these concerns have a scope to threaten normalization of ties between the two countries; yet both countries have genuinely not allowed them to snowball into a complete rupture in relations. Since no border dispute or any strategic hostile intent exists on both sides, there is no big hurdle which should prevent addressing these concerns.

One has to appreciate the fact that both countries did not hold some of the concerns against each other for pragmatic reasons in the past. Just like every mature country would have some divergence on issues with the other as long as they do not impinge on national security of the country in question—which is not the case at all in the example of Pakistan and Iran.

Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Bajwa has been very active to normalize relations with Iran since taking over: several high-level visits by him led to concrete progress on putting in place border management mechanisms.

It needs to be flagged though, there are certain limits of structural aspects in bilateral ties of the two countries (e.g., close security cooperation with Saudi Arabia precludes such cooperation with Iran).

However, since Iran has an array of countries with very unfriendly to hostile relations, the probability of using non-conventional squeeze is always there leveraging vulnerabilities of Pakistan/Iran border regions. There are even reports of Israelis intelligence targeting Iranian soft and hard pressure points from across the Afghan territory.

Pakistan should reach out to Tehran; nevertheless, as it needs to be a reconcilator to prevent further fragmentation of Muslim world and win over its immediate neighbor; whereas Iran also should not publicly indulge in hostile optics when both countries have developed robust bilateral engagement mechanisms to resolve mutual concerns. Any such indulgence, in the ISI related fiction only helps the RAW’ against Pakistan.

It needs to be flagged though, there are certain limits of structural aspects in bilateral ties of the two countries (e.g., close security cooperation with Saudi Arabia precludes such cooperation with Iran). Yet, Pakistan needs good ties with Iran (with only one caveat that it should not be at the cost of the KSA relations).

Read more: Iran, India move closer on trade as EU stalls

Iran also cannot afford to turn Pakistan into an enemy given the factors like its current level of hostile relations from the US, Israel to GCC countries, shared border logic, the sanctions challenge and the opportunity cost for the goodwill Iran enjoys with Pakistan’s second largest Shia community, strongly agitating against such a move. Let the sanity prevails.

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Baluchistan, and ex-advisor to the Baluchistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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