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From ‘Brothers’ to Restive Neighbors

by Khaled Ahmed

P.M. Khan meets then-Iran President Hassan Rouhani in 2019. Courtesy PID

Pakistan and Iran’s geopolitical interests have fractured the once heralded ties between the ‘brotherly’ states

In September 2021, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan participated in the ‘Three Brothers’ joint military exercises that lasted two weeks and involved the ‘special forces’ of all three countries. According to a statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the exercises focused on the “capability to counter regional terrorism threats in a hybrid scenario, fostering combined force interoperability, joint force integration and enhancement of capabilities in amphibious operations.” The chief guest of the final exercise was Azerbaijan Minister of Defense Zakir Hasanov.

“The Three Brothers 2021 exercises are being held in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku with the aim of further strengthening the existing ties between the three armies. Pakistan and Turkey had earlier provided support to Azerbaijan during the 44-day-long Second Karabakh War against Armenia,” reported Arab News on Sept. 4. “Experts say this new format for military cooperation adds a new layer to the political ties that date back to 2017, when Azerbaijan’s then-foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov held the first trilateral meeting with his Turkish and Pakistani counterparts in Baku,” it said, noting that Pakistan was the second country, after Turkey, to recognize Azerbaijan as an independent state on Dec. 12, 1991.

Iran’s negative reaction

The exercises did not well with Tehran, as reported by Dominic Dudley of the Associated Press on Oct. 1 2021: “On Sept. 12, Azerbaijan launched a joint exercise with Turkey and Pakistan, prompting a warning from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative in Ardebil province (which borders Azerbaijan) ‘not to play with the lion’s tail’. A day later, Azerbaijani M.P. Gudrat Hasanguliyev said Iran’s own Azeri minority could cause trouble in the event of any conflict with Baku. Iran’s direct and indirect support of ethnic separatism in Azerbaijan does not bode well for the territorial integrity of Iran, where 30 million Azerbaijani Turks and many other nations live.”

According to the report, ties between Pakistan and Turkey gained importance due to the restive situation in Afghanistan and the possibility of a refugee influx after the Taliban’s takeover. “In July 2021, Turkish, Azerbaijani and Pakistani parliament speakers signed the Baku Declaration to boost trilateral cooperation. In the declaration, the parties supported each other’s territorial integrity and underlined their respective priorities, with overt support to Azerbaijan in its moves on Karabakh, to Pakistan in its conflict over Jammu and Kashmir, and to Turkey in the settlement of Cyprus, Aegean and East Mediterranean disputes.” it added.

Pakistan-Azerbaijan relations

Relations between Azerbaijan and Pakistan were established when the Republic of Azerbaijan became independent following the collapse of the USSR. Pakistan was the second country to recognize Azerbaijan on Dec. 12, 1991 and trade and cooperation between the two nations have steadily grown, with several summits being held on how to improve trade between the two nations. Azerbaijan and Pakistan “enjoy strategic partnership relations,” according to officials of both countries in March 2013.

Farooq Leghari became the first president of Pakistan to visit Azerbaijan in 1995. A year later, his counterpart Heydar Aliyev visited Islamabad. There were several meetings between Aliyev and the prime minister of Pakistan—Benazir Bhutto—which ended with the signing of nine diplomatically important agreements. The agreement on defense and military cooperation between countries concluded in 2002, and was followed in the summer of 2004 with an official visit to Azerbaijan by military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Iran-Azerbaijan contradictions

Writing for the Hudson Institute on Feb. 5, Michael Doran reported on the contradictions that exist between Iran and Azerbaijan despite both states having a Shia Muslim majority, pointing to the fault-lines between the Persian and Azerbaijani “nations.” After a series of wars between the Russian Empire and Iran, the treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) forced Iran to cede the South Caucasus—that is, the lands north of the Aras River—to Russia. This border, drawn by two multi-ethnic empires, bisected the lands populated by ethnic‑Azerbaijanis, the people whom Azerbaijani nationalists today call “the Azerbaijani nation.”

Ethnic‑Azerbaijanis constitute between a fifth and a third of the entire population of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and they are predominantly concentrated in ethnically homogenous communities located in the regions immediately south of the Aras River. Historically, they have been well integrated into Iran, including at the highest levels of political and economic life. Many feel themselves to be Iranian first and Azerbaijani second. But some significant portion, especially of the younger generation, feels less loyalty to its Iranian identity and longs to cultivate its Azerbaijani roots. Among Azerbaijanis living in the Persian heartland, intermarriage and assimilation rates are high, but among those living in predominantly ethnic‑Azerbaijani provinces, a desire for greater cultural rights is increasingly evident. Those provinces are consumers of Turkish and Azerbaijani media—which promote a very different picture of the relationship between religion and state than prevails in Tehran. Though a Muslim majority country, Azerbaijan is a secular state and Western in its cultural orientation, with women fully integrated in public life and alcohol consumed at European levels.

Tehran supports Armenia

To counterbalance its northern neighbor, Tehran has consistently supported Armenia in the conflict over Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, despite the former being a Christian nation; the ideology of Iran calls for supporting fellow Muslims, but state interest trumps religious solidarity. In the Second Karabakh War, Tehran’s support for Armenia included one instance of direct intervention.

In mid‑October 2020, Iranian forces crossed the Khudafarin Bridge into Azerbaijan, where they placed concrete barriers on the road running parallel to the river. This action temporarily prevented reinforcements and supplies from reaching Azerbaijani frontline troops that had already moved westward past the bridge to confront Armenian troops. The Iranians refused to budge for several days. They returned home only after Baku threatened to go public with its displeasure—a step that would have inflamed the sentiments of Azerbaijanis in Iran and turned them against their government. Tehran also helped deliver military equipment and supplies to Armenia, which shares no border with its military patron, Russia. When Georgia barred Moscow from using its airspace, Tehran offered the Russians access to Armenia through Iran. Iranian Azerbaijanis, however, learned of the resupply operation. Protesters took to the streets in anger, forcing Iranian officials to deny that they were aiding Armenia and to issue affirmations of Muslim solidarity with brotherly Azerbaijan

Iran-Azerbaijan face-off

Journalist Dudley, writing for Forbes magazine on Oct. 6, 2021, noted: “Relations between Iran and its neighbor Azerbaijan have steadily deteriorated over recent weeks, fueled by military drills on both sides of the border, allegations of an Israeli military presence and the imposition of border controls on a road straddling the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Iranian forces began a military exercise close to the Azerbaijan border on Oct. 1. The war games were named Conquerors of Khaybar, an apparent reference to the Battle of Khaybar in 628CE in which Muslims fought against Jews in what is now Saudi Arabia.” Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev had criticized the exercises in advance, saying to Turkey’s Anadolu Agency in late September that “every country can carry out any military drill on its own territory. It’s their sovereign right. But why now, and why on our border?”

Iran’s military exercise

A day after the Iranian military exercise was launched, Azerbaijani M.P. Gudrat Hasanguliyev said Iran’s own Azeri minority could cause trouble in the event of any conflict with Baku. Iran’s “direct and indirect support of ethnic separatism in Azerbaijan does not bode well for the territorial integrity of Iran, where 30 million Azerbaijani Turks and many other nations live,” he said.

Umair Jamal on Feb. 10, 2021 wrote for The Diplomat: “Over the past week, media has been rife with reports of an Iranian operation inside Pakistan’s territory to free Iranian soldiers. The news, which was first reported by the Anadolu Agency and later picked up by Pakistani and Indian media, claimed that Iran freed two soldiers in an intelligence-led operation inside Pakistan’s territory.”

The Anadolu report cited sources within Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as claiming they had rescued two kidnapped border guards who were taken as hostages by Jaishul Adl organization two-and-a-half years earlier. It further noted that the freed soldiers were successfully transferred back to Iran. India’s top news outlets, including Hindustan Times, India Today and Times of India, portrayed the report as a “surgical strike” inside Pakistan. However, in Pakistan, not too many news outlets covered the story.

Iran-Pakistan relations

Since the inception of Pakistan in 1947, the relationship between Iran and Pakistan has altered significantly. At first, Iran was a brother and friend. There was significant bilateral cooperation in economic, cultural and security matters; for example, Iran provided support to Pakistan in its 1965 and 1971 wars against India. The relations saw an altering phase with Pakistan allying with the U.S. during the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-88). During the 1980s, Pakistan’s political proximity to Saudi Arabia, along with Islamization, triggered a sectarian divide within the country. Later, following 9/11, the U.S.-led War on Terror, which brought Pakistan and the United States together once again, added to the trust deficit between Islamabad and Tehran. Presently, the level of economic cooperation is far below its considered potential, and there is no defense cooperation. Despite the often-publicized rhetoric on both sides mentioning to the other as a “brotherly state,” there have been fracases in the border areas, along with accusations of cross-border terrorism.

Over the years, Pakistan and Iran have blamed each other for not doing enough to root out militants allegedly hiding along the border between the two countries. Iran, on its part, has usually conveyed its frustration over militant groups, particularly Jaishul Adl’s hideouts in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. In some cases, Pakistan’s military has freed Iranian soldiers in Balochistan, as in 2019 when troops recovered four Iranian soldiers who were abducted by Adl. Over the years, Iran has threatened military operations in Pakistan, but these threats appear to be for domestic political consumption while also signaling Tehran’s concerns. Following the abduction of Iranian soldiers in 2014, Tehran warned that it could send troops to Pakistan to free its soldiers. It also summoned Pakistan’s charge d’affaires to demand Islamabad “act firmly against the leaders and members of the terrorist group who have fled into Pakistan.”

Imran Khan in Iran

In 2019, Iran warned that Pakistan would “pay a heavy price” for allegedly harboring militants who killed 27 of its elite Revolutionary Guards in a suicide bombing. In Pakistan, these threats have drawn serious response, indicating that Islamabad is not going to accept them at any cost. Two years earlier, in 2017, Pakistan’s foreign office had summoned Iran’s ambassador after the head of the Iranian armed forces threatened to carry out raids inside Pakistan. Apparently, efforts have been in place to contain the situation posed by militants on Pakistan-Iran border region and shield it from leaving an impact on the bilateral relationship. Following the 2019 warning, Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Iran in an attempt to find a solution for the lingering militancy problem on the border region. “We agreed to increase the security cooperation of the two countries, our border forces, our intelligence forces,” Iran President Hassan Rouhani said after meeting Khan, adding the two sides would also “form a joint quick reaction force on the border of the two countries for fighting terrorism.”

Khan, in his remarks, said: “We trust that both countries will not have terrorist activities from their soil … We will not allow any damage to your country from our soil.” Directly addressing Rouhani, he added that the “most important reason why I’m here, Mr. President, is because I felt that the issue of terrorism was going to … increase differences between our countries.”

A few months later, in June 2020, Pakistan carried out a massive military operation against terrorists near the country’s border with Iran. Islamabad also started fencing its 900-kilometer long border with Iran to control cross-border incursion of terrorists, with Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa phoning Iranian counterpart Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri to discuss the fencing as well as recent attacks on Pakistan’s security forces near Iran’s border.

Border incidents and Pak-Iran relations

Despite these efforts, complaints of cross-border attacks from both states continue. Following an attack in Balochistan in April 2020, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi alleged that the militants behind the attack had come from Iran. Over the last few months, militant attacks on Pakistan’s security forces in Balochistan have increased significantly, with government officials alternating blame between hideouts in Afghanistan and Iran.

Despite the alarming situation in the border region, apparently a status quo has prevailed whereby both countries have tried to contain the situation while conveying their mutual frustration to each other. Under such circumstances, it is unlikely that Iran would carry out a unilateral military operation inside Pakistan as that would upset the delicate situation. Moreover, it makes sense that Tehran would share intelligence with Pakistan, as in the past. It’s possible that shared intelligence led to the Iranian soldiers being freed by Pakistan’s military.

Prime Minister Khan’s visit to Tehran brought the issue of Pak-sponsored terror groups operating inside Iran to the forefront. Iranian President Rouhani urged Khan to take action against the Al Qaeda-linked Jaishul Adl at a time of intensifying tensions, adding that the two states should not let decades of friendship and fraternity be affected by the actions of small terrorist groups, the source of whose financing and arms is “mutually known” by both.

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