A SCREEN grab shows a house struck by an Iranian missile on fire in Koh-i-Sabz village.
A SCREEN grab shows a house struck by an Iranian missile on fire in Koh-i-Sabz village.

• FO says reserves right to retaliate; US condemns Iran strikes in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria; Beijing urges restraint
• Islamabad recalls its ambassador; Iranian envoy asked ‘not to return’; all high-level visits cancelled

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Wednesday downgraded its diplomatic relations with Iran, recalling its ambassador from Tehran and expelling the Iranian envoy in Islamabad, in the wake of Iranian missile and drone strikes in Panjgur, Balochistan a day earlier.

Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said Pakistan reserved the right to retaliate against the attack, which she described as an “illegal act” and without any justification. In both statements issued after the attack, Ms Baloch warned Iran of the consequences of its action.

“Pakistan has decided to recall its ambassador from Iran and that the Iranian ambassador to Pakistan who is currently visiting Iran may not return for the time being,” she said.

Besides the diplomatic response, a senior official, in a telephone conversation with Dawn, did not rule out a military response, saying that “our response was still evolving”.

Similarly, high-level bilateral visits, both ongoing as well as planned ones, were cancelled. Iranian charge d’affaires in Islamabad was also summoned to FO to convey Pakistan’s condemnation of the incident.

The Iranian strikes are perceived by Pakistan as not only a breach of sovereignty, but also a potential catalyst for broader regional conflict, which is particularly alarming in the current tense regional climate. This situation is further complicated by regional rival India, which has been leveraging the pretext of terrorism to act against Pakistan.

Diplomatic sources also suggested that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) was responsible for the breach, and that despite the existence of multiple channels of communication between the two countries, the operation was carried out contrary to international law, which clearly violated Pakistan’s airspace.

Analysts suggest that while a direct military response from Pakistan is possible, the episode is likely to draw Pakistan closer to Iran’s rivals as a strategic countermeasure.

Iranian strikes

The Iranian strikes, which Tehran claims targeted militant bases of Jaish al-Adl in Pakistan, were part of a series of attacks carried out by Iran in recent days in Syria and Iraq as part of its response to recent terrorist attacks on its territory. The Iranian strikes have heightened concerns about regional stability, particularly amid ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

Last month, Iran claimed that militants from Jaish al-Adl, having crossed over from Pakistan, launched an assault on a police station in Rask, a town in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, leading to the deaths of 11 Iranian security officers. In the aftermath, Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi called upon Pakistan to end the sanctuaries of the militant group within its territory. Subsequently, Pakistan’s caretaker Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani, in discussions with his Iranian counterpart, reaffirmed Islamabad’s commitment to collaboratively addressing terrorism.

Iranian diplomats in their post-attack conversations with Pakistani officials, both in Islamabad and Tehran, tried to justify their unilateral action. FM Abdollahian publicly stated that the attack was targeted against an “Iranian terrorist group” in Pakistan and that “none of the nationals of the friendly and brotherly country of Pakistan were targeted by Iranian missiles and drones.”

He said Balochistan strikes were Iran’s resp­onse to the Rask attack.

However, this is not the first time that violence from Iran has claimed lives in Pakistan. In January 2023, four security personnel were martyred in Panjgur as a result of terrorist activities blamed on Iranian militants, while April saw another attack targeting Pakistani forces in Kech.

Tehran’s ‘damage control’ efforts

The missile and drone strikes, which occurred just a day after the Pakistani and Iranian navies conducted joint exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf and only hours after caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar’s meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Davos, caught Islamabad off guard.

There was no official word from the PM’s Office about the meeting, but Iranian media had said the two discussed terrorism among other issues. Iranian media said Mr Kakar underscored the importance of Tehran-Islamabad relations and expressed his country’s desire to strengthen its ties with Iran. He said the two countries were facing common challenges such as terrorism and called for joint efforts and cooperation to limit such perils.

The Iranian foreign minister reaffirmed his country’s respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He, however, emphasised that Tehran would not “allow the country’s national security to be compromised”.

Later in what could be seen as Iran’s first move to lower the tensions, Mr Abdollahian called FM Jilani, who is in Kampala, Uganda, to attend the ministerial meeting of the non-aligned movement to clarify the Iranian position on the issue.

The persistent challenge of terrorist havens has long plagued relations between the two nations, with both accusing each other of failing to confront terrorist factions launching attacks from their respective territories. While there have been instances of collaboration against these militant groups, leading to some enhancement in border security, a significant trust deficit has hindered substantial cooperation allowing terrorist groups to continue their subversive activities on both sides of the border.

Pakistan has also undertaken significant measures, including fencing a large part of its border with Iran and conducting military operations against militants near the border, in efforts to control the cross-border incursion of terrorists and address Iran’s concerns about militant groups like Jaish al-Adl operating from Pakistani soil.

In light of escalating tensions, the meeting of the Joint Border Trade Committee in Chabahar was cancelled and the Pakistan delegation, which was slated to participate in the Chabahar Free Zone Festival, returned home. Gwadar Deputy Commissioner Aurangzeb Badini said the delegation came back after instructions from the federal government. In the Joint Border Trade Committee meeting, the 35-member delegation of Pakistan was led by Chief Collector Aftab Iqbal Memon.

‘Exercise restraint’

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Beijing urged both Pakistan and Iran to exercise restraint and work collaboratively to maintain peace and stability in the region.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning, in a press briefing in Beijing, highlighted the importance of avoiding actions that could escalate tensions.

The call for restraint comes at a critical juncture amid growing concerns about the impact of these strikes on regional stability and bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan.

US condemns strikes

The United States on Wednesday condemned recent Iranian strikes in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, which Tehran has claimed were carried out against “anti-Iranian terrorist groups”.

“So we do condemn those strikes. We’ve seen Iran violate the sovereign borders of three of its neighbours in just the past couple of days,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

In Washington, Miller said: “I think it is a little rich for, on one hand, Iran to be the leading funder of terrorism in the region, the leading funder of instability in the region, and on the other hand, claimed that it needs to take these actions to counter terrorism.

Syed Irfan Raza in Islamabad and Saleem Shahid in Quetta also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2024

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