Iran is dispatching a delegation to Islamabad to pressure Pakistan to free five Iranian frontier guards who were abducted by jihadists along the border and then bundled into Pakistan a week ago—the most recent episode in a fledgling Sunni insurgency that Tehran accuses its arch regional rival Saudi Arabia of stoking. The hashtag #Freeiraniansoldiers became a worldwide Twitter trend this week thanks to tens of thousands of outraged tweets in support of the abductees, despite Twitter being blocked in Iran.
The jihadist group Jaish ul-Adl claimed responsibility on a Twitter account for the abductions and later posted photographs, allegedly showing the captive guards, on Facebook. Iran has protested the kidnappings, accusing Pakistani authorities of failing to police their shared border and enforce a bilateral security pact forged nearly a year ago before Saudi ally Nawaz Sharif was elected as Pakistan’s Prime Minister
The border abductions are the latest in a wave of jihadist attacks and bombings in Iran’s restive Sistan-Baluchistan province, home to a large Sunni minority of ethnic Baluch, that is increasingly frustrating and alarming Shia leaders in Tehran.
And the Iranian government is bracing for more problems with jihadist groups such as Jaish-ul-Adl (Army of Justice), which only emerged a year ago and which claims Iran needs to pay a price for its military and materiel support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Iranian foreign ministry in Tehran has summoned Pakistan’s charge d’affaires, demanding that Islamabad “act firmly against the leaders and members of the terrorist group who have fled into Pakistan.”
In the past few years Iran has faced mounting unrest in the poverty-stricken Sistan-Baluchistan province—driven by discrimination, say local Sunnis and ethnic Baluch. But in the past 12 months there has been an upsurge in Sunni jihadist activity, helped by a rise in the number of madrasas promoting Saudi-style Wahhabism, according to analysts.
New Jihadi groups that have emerged such as Jaish ul-Adl, which is thought to number several hundred fighters, and Harakat Ansar, which says their objective is to secure autonomy for the province. But in their propaganda, both groups also refer heavily to the Syrian conflict and Iran’s role in shoring up Assad. Harakat Ansar has made an appeal on Saudi websites for funding.
“Although the grievances of these groups are local, they are however increasingly linked via media networks to a conceptual framework of ‘global jihad’ and a wider sectarian fight of Sunni versus Shia Islam,” wrote Monish Gulati, an Indian defense analyst, in a recent study.
Last September, Jaish ul-Adl claimed responsibility for an hour-long border attack that left 14 Iranian border guards dead and half-a-dozen wounded. “This victorious operation is a response to the ferocious massacre carried out by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps in the Islamic land of Syria,” said Jaish ul-Adl’s statement on the attack, referring to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. “[It] is also a response to oppression and crimes this regime commits against the innocent Sunni community in Iran including the execution of innocent Baluch youths.”
The overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Quds Force, are engaged in Syria, providing military advisers and fighters to the Assad government as well as helping to organize Shia volunteers from other Middle East countries.
Jaish ul-Adl also claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb in Saravan in Iran’s southeast in late February of last year. Several Revolutionary Guards were reported by the Iranian media to have been killed in the bombing. In November Jaish ul-Adl assassinated a local prosecutor after Iranian authorities executed eight Sunni insurgents and eight drug traffickers. Civil-rights groups protested the executions.
The frequency of attacks is clearly angering Iran’s leaders. The country’s Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs, Ali Abdollahi, publicly vented his frustrations over the border-guard abductions, complaining of Pakistani inaction. “Pakistani officials shoulder a responsibility in this regard which they should honor,” he told local media.
In October, Iran complained to the UN Security Council about jihadists infiltrating Iran from Pakistan. The attacks risk disrupting Iran’s efforts to improve relations with its eastern neighbor.
When Asif Ali Zardari was Pakistan’s Prime Minister there was greater cooperation with Iran when it came to counter-terrorism and border issues. Iranian officials say Pakistani intelligence assisted in Iran’s capture in 2010 of a Baluchi nationalist leader. The two countries signed a security pact last February and a multi-billion-dollar oil pipeline deal was advanced. It is meant to come on stream at the end of this year.
But relations have become fraught since Sharif’s election.
The oil pipeline deal appears to be in jeopardy following Western disapproval and fears in Islamabad that it might fall foul of the international economic sanctions regime on Iran. Pakistani-Saudi relations have warmed since the election of Sharif, who fled to the Gulf kingdom after he was toppled in a coup in 1999. Last week, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, met with defense officials in Saudi Arabia to discuss bilateral cooperation.
Iranian hardliners see a Saudi hand in both the deteriorating relations with Pakistan and the upsurge in jihadist activity in southeast Iran. The Iranian hard-line news site Mashregh, which has close ties to the Iranian military, blames foreign “Wahhabis” for the rising violence in Sistan-Baluchistan, pointing the finger at Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
According to defense analyst Gulati, Iran, no slouch in the art for tit-for-tat, has been fomenting “trouble in the Saudi backyard—Yemen,” by providing support to a Shia insurgent group operating in northern Yemen.