Iranians work on a section of a gas pipeline linking Iran and Pakistan. Recent border violations by Iran have raised tensions, but prompted little response from Pakistan. (Agence France-Presse)
ISLAMABAD — Recent border violations by Iran, the latest of which involved Iranian mortar rounds landing inside Pakistan, are unlikely to lead to military escalation experts say.
Iranian analyst Ghani Jaffer Malik from the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI), called the incidents “unfortunate,” but said there is little incentive for either country to escalate matters.
“I do not foresee any deterioration in the military relations between the countries,” he said.
This view is echoed by former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley.
“Higher level combat is most unlikely,” he said, but added a word of caution: “The trouble with incidents like this is that they can escalate because neither side will ever admit responsibility for actions by their own troops, even if it is patently obvious they were at fault.”
The recent Iranian border violations seem to stem from an ambush of Iranian border guards in Iran on the night of Oct. 25-26, in which Iranian media stated 14 were killed by “bandits” near the town of Saravan.
The attackers escaped across the border into Pakistan, and were later claimed to belong to the previously unknown group Jaish ul Adl (Army of Justice). It appears to be a Sunni militant group that operates in the majority Sunni provinces of Sistan and Baluchestan in essentially Shiite Iran.
Tehran voiced its anger at the attacks with Islamabad, calling for it to control the border more effectively and threatening to follow any further infiltrators into Pakistan.
The border area is very remote, rugged and sparsely populated. It is patrolled by Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps, but most attention is focused internally on Pakistan’s own militant problems.
Therefore, Cloughley says the border naturally attracts criminal elements.
“There is a [drug and people] smuggling problem, certainly, and there may even be passage of extremists from time to time” he said.
However, he said, “I can say with certainty that Pakistan’s policy is to support neither.
“This does not mean to say that on the ground there could be individuals in security forces who can be corrupted. It happens on both sides of the border with India, across which there is occasional high-value packet transfer, so it can definitely take place on Pakistan’s western border.”
Matters on the border appeared to have stabilized but on Nov. 12, an Iranian helicopter entered Pakistani airspace near Mashkel in Balochistan. It flew around for a few minutes before returning to the Iranian side of the border.
This was followed by an Iranian mortar attack on Sunday which damaged a mosque, but otherwise caused no injuries to the inhabitants, who later demonstrated against the lack of official government response.
Indeed there has not been any response to the Iranian border violations from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A spokesman for the military’s Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR) media arm also told Defense News that there was not yet any statement from the military in response to the Iranian actions.
Malik draws a complicated strategic picture that helps explain Pakistan’s lack of response. “Both share many commonalities, and in strategic terms, Pakistan must have at least one friendly neighbor” as it is faced with a belligerent India and traditionally “unreliable” Afghanistan.
“Iran’s claims are perfectly valid,” he said. “Iran is very strict on both accounts [smuggling and militancy], and is not getting any help from Western forces in Afghanistan on this issue either.”
Malik also highlights efforts of both countries to move closer together, namely the building of a strategically important gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan to help overcome Pakistan’s crippling energy shortage. However, the project faces considerable opposition from the US.
Pakistan’s options to improve the situation and assuage Iranian concerns are limited, Cloughley said.
“It’s extremely difficult to police any border, as the US well knows, given its Mexico problem, so, yes, the only solution for Pakistan is to step up vigilance so far as it can, given its limited resources,” he said.
He acknowledged however that, “Ground patrolling is expensive in operating costs of vehicles and resupply, and aerial surveillance is even more costly, and is effective only if there is some means of detaining suspects.”