By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN
“The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” ~ Samuel P. Huntington
In the aftermath of Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, followed by Israel’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Gaza, the Middle Eastern region was thrust into a long-standing conflict that is now spilling beyond the region with global ramifications. With civilians injured and killed by the attack in Gaza, what followed was the collective condemnation of the actions Israel took by Islamic countries and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Amid all of this churn, a surprising event took place near the Iran-Pakistan border, with both countries accusing each other of harbouring terrorists and striking each other. Let us look into that particular event and how it can have broader implications in the region.
Iran Strikes Jaish Al-Adl (JAA)
On January 16, 2024, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) carried out missile and drone strikes in a village in the Balochistan province of Pakistan. The IRGC claimed to have targeted Jaish al-Adl, or “army of justice,” which is an ethnic Baloch Sunni Muslim group that has, in the past, carried out terror attacks inside Iran.
The group Jaish Al-Adl, a Sunni Islamic militant group based in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province, is considered to be a successor to the terror group Jundallah. Jundallah was dismantled after its founder, Abdolmalek Rigi, was executed by the Iranian government in 2010.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a press release, warned Iran of serious consequences. It says, “Pakistan strongly condemns the unprovoked violation of its airspace by Iran and the strike inside Pakistani territory, which resulted in the death of two innocent children while injuring three girls. This violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is completely unacceptable and can have serious consequences.”
Operation Marg Bar Sarmachar- Pakistan Strikes Back
It did not take long for Pakistan to retaliate against these strikes, which it claimed were a violation of its sovereignty. While diplomatically it lodged a strong protest with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran, militarily it carried out several strikes in Iran’s south-eastern Sistan-Baluchestan province under what it called Operation Marg Bar Sarmachar. The BBC reported that this attack by Pakistan marked “the first external land attack on Iran since Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded in the 1980s.”
Along with targeting the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), Pakistan said in a statement that these strikes, which were carried out with drones, rockets, and long-range missiles with targeted precision, also pestered Pakistani-origin terrorists operating from inside Iran who referred to themselves as ‘Sarmachars’. A total of nine people, including civilians, succumbed to these strikes by Pakistan. It is somewhat ironic that Pakistan, an epicentre of terrorism in the region, which is widely known for harbouring terrorists and terror organisations, is attacking another sovereign country, claiming to fight terrorists.
Pakistan and Iran De-escalating
After nearly destroying each other’s sovereignty, both countries eventually decided, with mutual respect, to de-escalate the situation. Pakistani and Iranian Foreign Ministers, Mr. Jalil Abbas Jilani and Mr. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, respectively, agreed in a telephonic conversation to de-escalate the situation. They further call for the strengthening of working-level cooperation and close coordination on counter-terrorism and other aspects of mutual concern.
The meeting between the caretaker PM of Pakistan, Mr. Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, and Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, on the same day when Iran carried out strikes in Pakistan, is also believed to have facilitated a room for a dialogue and overall de-escalation of the situation.
Clash of Civilizations and Future of Pakistan-Iran Relations
Historically, both Iran and Pakistan have maintained a cordial relationship amid the cold war, with both countries even cooperating with the USA as members of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). However, in 1979, after the ouster of the Shah of Iran due to the Islamic Revolution, bilateral relations strained, causing divergence between them. Although Pakistan claimed to be neutral during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), it leaned towards Iraq, further causing tensions with Iran.
In the post-Cold War era, when there was a reshaping of the world order, many countries, including Iran and Pakistan, took major shifts in their policies, especially when it came to economic trade and globalisation. In 2004, both countries even signed a Preferential Trade Agreement which became operational in September 2006. However, much of the potential of such a trade arrangement is yet to be utilised since annual bilateral trade as of 2023 is only around $2 billion.
Despite previous bitterness between them, the status quo has been maintained in the bilateral relationship, with no major occurrence of skirmishes between the two countries. What happened suddenly? Why did Iran feel that it needed to attack Pakistan? Let us see if Huntigton’s hypothesis of the Clash of Civilizations can help us understand the current situation.
In the summer of 1993, American political scientist, adviser, and academic Samuel P. Huntigton wrote his famous essay in Foreign Affairs Magazine on “the clash of civilizations”, in which he argued that the future of conflict will lie in the cultural fault lines. He stresses, “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”
In the last few weeks, we have witnessed the manifestation of this clash of civilizations when the Shia majority Islamic country carrying out offensive strikes against a nuclear armed Sunni majority Islamic country. Additionally, the cultural differences between Pakistan’s Punjabi ruling elite and tribal ethnic Balochi people further aggravated the instability of the region. It is also important to note that cultural reasons alone are not sufficient for the clashes between civilizations; they have to be coupled with geopolitical reasons. Now let us explore how the geopolitics of the Middle East is creating chaos in the adjacent regions.
The Middle Eastern Spillover
While the events look like they are not directly linked to the situation in the Middle East, they are perceived as a spillover of the situation in Gaza. The strategic isolation of Iran, especially in the aftermath of Iran’s support for Hamas and other members of the Axis of Resistance, led Iran to be more belligerent, making kinetic escalation not only a means of ultimate deterrence but also a tool of power projection. Apart from targeting terror camps, Iran’s strikes on Pakistan also provide testament to Iran’s offensive missile-strike capabilities.
The USA, on the other hand, is doing its best to portray Iran as the main perpetrator behind the chaos in the region. Recently, on January 28, 2024, a deadly drone attack in northeast Jordan near the Syrian border resulted in the unfortunate demise of three US service members in addition to at least 34 others being wounded. Although Iran denied having any involvement with the attack, the US believed it to be carried out by the Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq. Some US senators even went further, suggesting bombing Iran for these actions. In retaliation for this attack, the US hits hard at militias in Iraq and Syria.
Overall, the situation is grim in the region, and any misadventure by any concerned state or non-state actor can result in a profound catastrophe with global implications.
Way Forward and Path to Peace
In the Middle East, which is perhaps alien to the concept of peace, once the return of hostages by Israel has been secured, the solution to long-term conflict lies in the two-state solution and subsequent recognition of the state of Palestine by global powers. Israel can eradicate Hamas, but if it does not allow a legitimate Palestinian state to exist as a sovereign country, many terror organisations will take birth from the inherent feeling of relative deprivation. India’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations and the first Indian Representative to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, Mr. T.S. Tirumurti, rightly remarked, “The two-State solution alone can bring peace. A one State solution is a no-State non-solution.”
Coming back to the situation in Pakistan, the larger problem lies in Pakistan’s, and to an extent Iran’s, oppression of Baloch civilians, which morphed into a popular discontent against the state apparatus, which in turn caused insurgency in the region. For long-term peace, both Iran and Pakistan have to cooperate on resolving the issue of Balochistan, which can start with giving Baloch people more autonomy, if not full sovereignty, over their own land. While it is imperative to fight all forms of terrorism, suppression of political dissent will only lead to more dissent. Further, Iran must ensure not to expand existing conflict to an extent that can invite retaliatory destruction.