Iranian drones have been venturing into Pakistan's airspace since March, but it took until June for the Pakistani Air Force to shoot one down as it ventured 4 kilometres across the border. Pakistan has shown little patience with Iran's Shahed-129 drones compared to the leniency shown to the lethal US Predator drone strikes in the north-west Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This is a new departure for Pakistan in dealing with foreign drone incursions; it demonstrates that there is no appetite for sleepwalking into an Iranian drone age. Three months in and Pakistan is already enforcing a shoot-to-destroy policy.
The drones are likely to be controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the unit created in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution which is tasked to protect Iran's national security, borders and government from asymmetric foreign threats. The IRGC has a separate role from the other Iranian armed forces, and has its own troops, intelligence service, navy and air force.
Tehran has not notified Pakistan officially of its incursions and has ignored diplomatic meetings to explain its concerns and justifications. Ahmed Quraishi, a Pakistan affairs analyst told MEMO, "The most likely Iranian justification would be that drones are a countermeasure against alleged anti-Iran armed groups inside Pakistan."
There's no denying that the presence of such groups along the border area between Iran and Pakistan is cause for concern; Jaish Al-Adl (JAD) in particular may be the primary undeclared rationale for the drones. In 2014, JAD kidnapped Iranian border guards, leading to tension between Tehran and Islamabad. Iran's Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli warned at the time, "If Pakistan doesn't take the needed steps to fight against the terrorist groups, we will send our forces onto Pakistani soil [and] we will not wait." Pakistan responded diplomatically, claiming that it was not shirking its responsibility, but pointing out that sending Iranian troops into Pakistan without the government's agreement would be illegal.
Armed groups based in the Sistan and Baluchistan region are pushing for their own ethnic-independence from Pakistan. The majority of the groups believe that Shia Iran discriminates against Sunni Muslims. There is thus a push against both Pakistan and Iran for independence. Given Iran's involvement with Shia forces in Syria and Iraq against Sunnis, the Baluch in Baluchistan may be feeling aggrieved due to a sense of pan-Sunni identity, and this may feed into the motives of the armed groups.
On 26 April, JAD killed ten Iranian border guards in Mirjavah, in Sistan-Baluchistan province, prompting some serious comments from the foreign ministry spokesman in Tehran. "The Pakistani government," fumed Bahram Qassemi, "should be held accountable for the presence and operation of these vicious groups on its soil."
There are a number of armed groups operating in the area, including Jundallah, Al-Qaeda, Lashkae-e-Jhangvi, Sipa-e-Sahaba and, more prominently, the Baluchistan Liberation Army, Baluchistan Republican Army, Baluchistan Liberation Front and various other Baluchi factions. However, it is not clear what Iran's official position is with regard to the situation, and whether it believes that it is involved in a formal armed conflict.
Iran has shrouded its justifications for the cross-border drones in secrecy. "Iran has not explained to Pakistan why it is operating drones in Pakistani territory, and Tehran has been avoiding meetings between border security officials since May, using delaying tactics," analyst Ahmed Quraishi told MEMO.
According to international law, Pakistan is entitled to shoot down Iranian drones which venture into its airspace, as they violate its territorial integrity; this much is very clear. Iran's actions are a breach of the UN Charter, which prohibits the "threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner" except in three situations: in self-defence to deter an armed attack; with the consent of the primary state; or if the UN Security Council has approved such action.
Of course, Iran can use drones within its own airspace as it sees fit. Tehran could also, of course, use the US justification of "self-defence" for its use of cross-border drones; that Pakistan has been "unable or unwilling" to control hostilities by armed groups operating from its territory.
It is not clear whether there is an actual war between any armed group in the region and Iran, or if Pakistan is condoning hostility towards Iran. Nor is it clear whether the kidnapping and killing of Iranian border guards by armed groups amounts to a formal attack on Iran and its sovereignty. Whether or not Iran has been using drones in Pakistan to pre-empt or foil a plot is a question that triggers yet more legal and political discussions.
With Iranian officials avoiding explanatory discussions with Pakistan's foreign minister on the subject it is becoming clear that the low-risk use of drones can engineer political strife at relatively little cost.
MEMO contacted the Iranian Ministry of Defence for a comment on the use of drones inside Pakistan, and whether Iran deems any armed group along the border to be posing a serious threat. No response had been received at the time of writing.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.