The Pakistan-Iran border is on the boil again. On Oct 26 the Iranian state media reported that 11 Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrested by Pakistan’s security forces had accidentally strayed into Pakistan territory. They were reportedly pursuing suspected fuel smugglers. The unofficial Pakistani version is that the Revolutionary Guards, one of Iran’s most powerful and politically strong fighting force, entered Pakistan territory in two jeeps probably in hot pursuit. Its having taken place within a week of the deadly Oct 18 Jundullah attack in Iran, this hot pursuit most likely involved suspected Jundullah men. Significantly, immediately after the Oct 18 attack a senior Revolutionary Guards commander had publicly demanded that his force be given permission to confront terrorists inside Pakistan. This was a demand raised with Pakistani officials during the recent visit of the Iranian minister of interior.
Meanwhile, the significant fact is that despite numerous border incidents, including the illegal entry of the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian border guards into Pakistan, the two countries follow a policy of containing the problem. For example, within hours of this border event, the effort from Islamabad and Tehran was to play down the event. “The guards were handed over to the Iranian authorities because it’s found that they crossed into Pakistan mistakenly,” said a spokesman for Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps.
At the same time, the current problem of the depleting trust and absence of sustained and structured cooperation between South-West Asia’s two historically close neighbours resurfaced.
Within hours of the Oct 18 attack, in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, a string of well-coordinated public statements criticising Pakistan came from senior Iranian officials, both civil and military. Some, like the Revolutionary Guards, directly blamed Pakistani agencies, others blamed the United States. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that Pakistani territory was used for the attack. Pakistan acted fast to prevent the situation from getting worse, and this effort included President Asif Ali Zardari’s call to his Iranian counterpart.
The Oct 18 was one of the deadliest attacks targeting Iran’s 120,000-strong Revolutionary Guards and underscored the growing insurgency threat that Tehran now faces. Jundullah, the Iranian Baluch insurgency led by Abdul Malek Rigi, is based in Sistan-Baluchistan, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The stated objectives of Jundullah, founded in 2002, have been to protect Baluch rights in Iran. Rigi claimed in an October 2008 interview that his organisation, also known as the People’s Resistance Movement, wanted the Iranian state to respect the human rights, culture and faith of the Sunni Baluch.
In practice, however, Jundullah has widely been held responsible for three of the deadliest terrorist attacks carried out in Sistan-Baluchistan targeting Iranian citizens, government officials and security forces. These were the bomb explosion in May at a mosque in the provincial capital, Zahedan, killing 19, the February 2007 bomb attack killing 11 Iranians, including Revolutionary Guards, and the March 2006 Zahedan bomb attack that killed 22.
However, Jundullah—according to western media as well, including leading American television channels like ABC and British newspapers like The Telegraph—is being funded by the CIA to carry out sabotage against the Iranian government. The birth of the Junduallah group was widely viewed as Washington’s direct hands-on entry into Iranian politics.
It is the American connection that is most worrisome for Tehran. According to Iranian news reports, Abdullhamid Rigi, the brother of Jundullah leader Abdulmalek Rigi, admitted during interrogation by an Iranian court in Zahedan in July that Junduallah was trained and financed by the US. There are reports of the group receiving support from drug barons
Significantly, the Junduallah threat flags also the need for greater sustained and structured security Pakistan-Iran cooperation. For Pakistan the compulsions for security cooperation are numerous.
One, in the midst of what appears to be a serious attempt at strategic course-correction, Pakistan can ill afford to directly or indirectly patronise insurgency groups targeting neighbouring governments. Equally dangerous for Pakistan is the state’s benign neglect of such groups. Two, Pakistan’s experience as a sanctuary for the Afghan resistance groups, which Islamabad was meant to have controlled, has exposed the myth of “controlling” insurgency groups. Clearly, the agendas of resistance groups remain autonomous of the host, and indeed even of the patron, as proven by India’s experience of the LTTE and ours of the various Afghan Mujahideen groups.
Three, with the growing lethal power of sub-state actors operating in cross-border areas the state increasingly wears the look of an endangered species. And to prop up the state back into a fully functioning and effective mode, inter-state cooperation is a must. With distrust among the regional states, victory for insurgency or at least chaos in the region is guaranteed.
For Iran the compulsion for cooperation is equally strong. The pressures on the states in the region, especially Iran and Pakistan, also come from out-of-the-region players like the United States. The United States’ multiple global agendas, including non-proliferation, counter-proliferation, Israel’s security and counter-terrorism have made it a major player in South, Central and South-West Asia. In addition to its troop deployment in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and to a lesser extent some presence in Pakistan, Washington has covert presence in this region. For example, the US legislature has in the past approved funds for the CIA to undermine the Iranian government. In recent history, CIA operations have been used as a policy tool by successive US administrations to strengthen pro-US groups or, indeed, to weaken governments viewed as being detrimental to US interests.
Today with Washington’s expanding threat perceptions and an equally expanding policy failure whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and earlier in Iraq, Washington’s covert policy arm will be further activated. This US policy will undoubtedly further weaken states and governments in the region. No state can roll back this covert US influence on its own, because while the state can technically operate within its own territorial sphere the US can support insurgency groups operating across the border. Unless the states in the region do coordinate their efforts to deal with foreign-funded insurgency groups, they are unlikely to succeed.
Clearly, the compulsions override the constraints that may prevent improvement in relations between the two strategically located neighbours. Their common borders, trade routes, religion and the common ethnicity essentially translates into a compulsion which dictates that the neighbours develop shared if not common security structures. Especially in present times where two factors, the well-oiled militant and armed trans-national groups of sub-state actors are gradually beginning to overpower the traditional security structures of the state, unity between states that share borders has become imperative.
Without effective cooperation the states, especially within the region, will find it increasingly impossible to provide security to its citizens. The states in this region will have to go the Europe route. For European states the future threat of Asian economic giants prompted them to opt for greater cooperation at the cost of reduced sovereignty. However, in our region, the security compulsion will dictate greater inter-state cooperation. The future security paradigm will have to locate itself in the reality of enhanced security through shared sovereignty. Common spaces among neighbouring states will evolve only insofar as there is political will to address the chronic problem of trust deficit among neighbouring States.
Reduced trust deficit is a necessary precondition for constructing shared security structures is always reduced trust deficit. For Pakistan and Iran the latest Jundullah attack yet again flags the problem that the security compulsions of the two neighbours require greater trust-building through continuous dialogue and greater cooperation especially on security issues.
By Nasim Zehra