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Militant attacks may prompt greater cooperation between Iran and India against Pakistan

February 22, 2019 at 5:10 pm

Relatives touch the coffin of a member of the Revolutionary Guards, who was killed in a suicide attack, in Iran on 16 February 2019 [ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images]

Tensions between Pakistan and its neighbours Iran and India are running high in the wake of deadly suicide attacks in the Iranian border province of Sistan-Baluchestan and Indian-controlled Kashmir.

The terrorist car bomb on 13 February in eastern Iran, the responsibility for which was claimed by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish Ul-Adl (“Army of Justice”). killed 27 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and wounded many others. The next day, a similar vehicle-borne blast by the Pakistan-based militant Jaish-e-Mohammed in the Pulwama district of Kashmir left 40 Indian paramilitary police officers dead.

Tehran and Delhi have accused Islamabad of harbouring terrorists and vowed revenge and retaliation. The Iranian authorities have also claimed that two members of the militant group who carried out the attack in Sistan-Baluchestan — including the suicide bomber himself, identified as Hafez Mohammad Ali — were Pakistani nationals.

While Iran and India are unlikely to resort to direct military action against Pakistan or even carry out large-scale operations targeting militants on Pakistani territory, they will join forces to degrade Pakistan’s ability to use militancy as an instrument of foreign policy.

“Iran and India suffered two heinous terrorist attacks in the past few days which resulted in heavy casualties,” tweeted Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Today in my meeting with Sushma Swaraj the Indian FM, when she had a stopover in Tehran, we agreed on close cooperation to combat terrorism in the region. Enough is enough!”

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This close cooperation to balance against Pakistan has over the past years manifested itself most prominently in the joint development of strategic Chabahar port in the Sistan-Baluchestan province. Less than 100 kilometres by sea from the Chinese-funded Gwadar port in south Pakistan, Chabahar helps provide India with an alternative route to Central Asia, Russia and European markets, undermining perceived Chinese-Pakistani attempts to “encircle” Delhi. It is also particularly important for landlocked Afghanistan, which has been at the mercy of Pakistan’s efforts to maintain a dominant position in the war-torn country by cultivating like-minded militant groups, not least the Taliban.

Another source of leverage in Iran’s foreign policy toolkit, albeit more ideological and normative, is its stance on the Kashmir dispute, which might soften in favour of Delhi as a result of such attacks on its citizens. Historically, the government in Tehran has drawn upon its Shia ideology to pressure its eastern neighbours and project influence and power over South Asian Muslims, particularly the Shia communities in Pakistan and India.

In the run up to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s July 2017 trip to Israel, the Islamic Republic’s arch-enemy, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who usually treats the Kashmir dispute with restraint — surprisingly raised the issue twice in a short space of time and urged “support for the Muslims of Kashmir”. Given the current escalation of tensions with Pakistan and its growing ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, such political posturing on the part of Tehran may take a back seat.

It is noteworthy that Iranian leaders and Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders see the hidden hand of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates behind militant attacks in Iran by groups like Jaish Ul-Adl, Al-Ahvaziya and Daesh, the so-called Islamic State.

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“Considering Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s pledge to take the fight inside Iran, it seems that Riyadh regards the Iranian-Pakistani border areas, where there is a security void, as a soft spot for orchestrating terrorist attacks against Iranian military forces,” explained Sajad Abedi, a senior analyst at Iran’s National Defence and Security Institute. The think tank is affiliated closely with the Supreme Leader’s office.

“To this end, it relies on such extremist Sunni groups as Jundullah or Jaish Ul-Adl on the one hand and its influence within the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) on the other,” he told me in a recent telephone call. “That’s the view in Tehran. Let’s also not forget that the Chanali suicide blast happened shortly before Bin Salman’s visit to Islamabad.”

To neutralise what is perceived ultimately to be a Saudi-funded and ISI-facilitated destabilisation campaign, the Revolutionary Guards Corps could double its intelligence efforts in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, which lies on the other side of the border and is home to separatist Pakistani Baloch groups. In this context, intelligence sharing and collaboration between Tehran and Delhi, which Islamabad accuses of arming and training Baloch separatists, is not out of the question.

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Even so, Afghanistan is expected to be the major territory where Iranian-Indian collaboration to curb Pakistan’s vast clout and contain the Islamabad-backed Taliban could take place. Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zahid Nasrullah, warned on 19 February that peace negotiations between the United States and the Afghan militants would be affected if Delhi resorted to military action against Islamabad in retaliation for the deadly Pulwama attack.

While the Islamic Republic of Iran supports a role for the Taliban in the post-war governance structure, terror attacks in eastern Iran by Pakistan-based militant groups will raise concerns that a possible Taliban takeover in the wake of US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan could only extend an already formidable security challenge to Iranian-Afghan border areas up north as well. Security concerns of this type will pave the way for further cooperation between Iran, India and the US-backed Afghan government to make sure that the Taliban remains a subdued militant force.

India’s strategic partnership and massive arms trade with Israel has arguably worked as a major impediment to any sustainable and substantive deepening of ties between Tehran and Delhi. There is little doubt, however, that Pakistan’s support for militant groups that pose a national security threat to its neighbours will serve as a catalyst for greater cooperation between Iran and India.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.