Islamabad recalls ambassador from Iran as tensions mount following strikes on militant targets

Iran Pakistan

Pakistan, on January 17, recalled its ambassador to Tehran after Iran launched airstrikes on separatist militant targets. Islamabad condemned the strikes as a “blatant violation” of its airspace in the restive Balochistan province and said that it would respond to the aggression. The strikes on the day before the ambassador’s recall, which reportedly led to the death of two children, have damaged diplomatic relations between the two Islamic Republics, but neither side seemingly wants to escalate the situation into a military confrontation. Nonetheless, a short-term diplomatic crisis will likely follow. Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, announced on January 17 that Islamabad had withdrawn its ambassador to Tehran because of the strikes. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry also protested on January 16 to their Iranian counterparts and summoned an Iranian diplomat in Islamabad “to convey our strongest condemnation of this blatant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”“The responsibility for the consequences will lie squarely with Iran,” it said. Iran said, according to state media reports, which were later withdrawn without explanation, its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) targeted bases belonging to the militant group Jaish al-Adl, or the “Army of Justice,” a Balochi organisation which seeks the independence of Balochistan, a region which traverses the border region of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.A senior Pakistani security official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to reporters, said Iran had shared no information prior to the strike and that Pakistan reserved the right to respond at a time and place of the country’s choosing and such a strike would be measured and in line with public expectations. “The dangerous precedent set by Iran is destabilising and has reciprocal implications,” the official said. However, despite the bravado from Pakistan, the country is unlikely to respond to Iran’s violation of sovereignty. Although Pakistan is aligned with Iran in stopping Balochi separatism, this obviously does not give a right to violate the sovereignty of another country, especially since the base of Jaish al-Adl is Iran.Adding to the humiliation is the fact that Iran struck the militant targets when its Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was meeting Pakistan’s interim Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In the first public acknowledgment by a senior Iranian government official, Amir-Abdollahian claimed when speaking at Davos on January 17 that “no civilians” were targeted in the strikes and insisted that only “terrorists” were hit. Amir-Abdollahian also assured Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister that Iran “respects Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty” despite the obvious violation.Ensuring that tensions do not escalate, China urged Pakistan and Iran to show “restraint” and “avoid actions that would lead to an escalation of tension.” Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning added that Beijing saw the countries as “close neighbours.” As Iran’s economy struggles under intense Western sanctions and Pakistan’s is almost entirely reliant on loans and financial aid, China’s urging for the two countries to end hostilities holds weight since the East Asian country is their largest trading partners - and by a large margin.It is unlikely that hostilities will deepen not only due to China’s intervention but also because Pakistan is an aspiring member candidate of BRICS, which Iran joined on January 1 alongside Egypt, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan already faces an uphill battle in joining BRICS because of the longstanding and seemingly never-ending hostility with India, a founding member of the bloc, and having new issues with Iran will all but end the ambition of having the membership approved. The Jaish al-Adl, according to Iranian state media, is backed by Saudi Arabia and the US, whilst according to experts, Pakistan tolerates the Sunni militant group since their main target is Shi’a majority Iran. This would explain why Iran did not trust communicating with Pakistan that it would strike the group, a demonstration of its willingness to use force to ensure security, even at the risk of antagonising a nuclear power.

Although the incident will very likely blow over, what it highlights is that BRICS membership is a long way off, not only because of the India factor but also because tensions and issues with Iran have not been fully resolved.

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