Iranian state media reported on Tuesday that the country’s military struck locations described as militant bases in Pakistan’s western Balochistan province.
According to Iran’s state-run English-language Press TV network, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRC) struck “two main bases” of Jaish al-Adl, an Iranian Baloch separatist militant group, with “drones and missiles” in the Zarghoon Mountains, also known as Zarghun Ghar, located east of the city of Quetta.
Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for a mid-December attack on Iranian police forces in the southwestern province of Sistan-Baluchestan and has been fighting the Iranian state for over a decade.
The reported IRGC strikes in Pakistan come just a day after Iran responded to Israel’s assassination in December of a senior IRGC official in Syria by hitting targets in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, killing Peshraw Dizayee, a prominent Iraqi Kurdish businessman. Iran claims it targeted a Mossad facility.
The History of Jaish al-Adl
Since 2002, Iran has been targeted by Sunni extremist militants from the Baloch ethnic group. The first of these jihadist groups was Jundullah, which was founded in 2002 but splintered after its chief, Abdolmalek Rigi, was captured by Iran in 2010.
Over the mid-to-late 2000s, Jundullah conducted suicide attacks on the IRGC and mosques in Iran and was accused of attempting to assassinate then-President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in 2005.
Jaish al-Adl, founded in 2012, is one of two successor groups to Jundullah.
Like the Kurds, the Baloch are dispersed across multiple countries — including Iran and Pakistan — but don’t have a state of their own. Many Baloch have long felt marginalized by their central governments. This disaffection has driven separatist Baloch insurgencies in both Iran and Pakistan.
While Baloch militancy in Pakistan is largely secular, in predominantly Shia Iran it has taken on a religious form. Baloch separatist militants come from the same Sunni subsect, the Deobandis, as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Iran and Pakistan Trade Accusations
Over the years, Iran and Pakistan have traded accusations of harboring and supporting anti-state militants that target their respective countries. Iran has at times said that groups like Jundullah and Jaish al-Adl have received direct or indirect support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
Pakistani officials too have accused Iran of aiding ethnic Baloch separatists in Pakistan, including the Baloch Liberation Front led by Allah Nazar Baloch.
In 2016, Pakistan apprehended Kulbhushan Jadav, an intelligence officer with India’s Research and Analysis Wing, who Islamabad claims had provided aid, training, and direction to anti-state militants in Pakistan, including for attacks on sites connected to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Pakistan is, however, not the only country alleged to have ties to anti-Iran Baloch militants. In 2010, Foreign Policy, citing U.S. officials, reported that Mossad operatives posed as Central Intelligence Agency officers in an attempt to recruit members of Jundullah, the Jaish al-Adl predecessor, to target Iran.
Today’s airstrikes — condemned by Pakistan’s Foreign Office — are not the first direct Iranian military operation conducted in Pakistan. In 2021, Iran claimed that it rescued two border guards kidnapped by Jaish al-Adl who were held in Pakistan. A decade ago, during the height of the Sunni Baloch insurgency, Iranian cross-border reprisal attacks in Pakistan were far more frequent.
But Tuesday’s reported airstrikes could be Iran’s deepest attacks in Pakistan. If Iran’s claims to have struck locations inside Pakistan more than 400 miles from the border are true, they likely reflect gaps in Pakistan’s air defense.
It should be noted that other sources, including BBC Urdu, report that Tuesday’s attacks took place much closer to Iran in Pakistan’s Panjgur region, roughly 55 miles east of the Iranian border.
The IRGC has a significant network of proxies and fellow travelers within Pakistan. Its proxies are alleged to have killed a Saudi military officer in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2011.
Iran is carefully managing the escalation ladder, choosing to not strike Israel or the United States directly. The IRGC’s partners in the so-called Axis of Resistance, including Hezbollah and the Houthis, offer it strategic depth. But while the Houthis, for their own reasons, have not shied away from escalation, Hezbollah seeks to avoid all-out war with Israel, as Lebanon is embroiled in its worst-ever economic crisis.
But Tehran is under attack from a broader spectrum of forces, including Israel, the Sunni Baloch militant group Jaish al-Adl, and the so-called Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province” (ISIS-K), which is based in Afghanistan. The extent to which these groups have foreign state support is unclear.
What is clear: day by day, Israel’s Gaza war is increasingly taking on the form of a broader regional war.
The Iranian strikes in Pakistan represent a challenge for Pakistan’s de-facto ruler, the army chief Gen. Asim Munir. The military leader has projected a strongman image, crushing the country’s largest political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Amid a resurgent Taliban insurgency at home, Munir has forced hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan. The Pakistani military has also taken kinetic action inside Afghanistan.
Oddly enough, the Iran strikes took place on the same day that Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Davos. Iran’s special envoy for Afghanistan also met Pakistan’s top diplomat in Islamabad on Monday — likely to discuss their shared Taliban problem.
There may be political pressure on Pakistan’s Gen. Munir to respond in kind to the Iranian attacks. In the past, the Iranian and Pakistani militaries have addressed their concerns using quiet diplomacy and, when necessary, unilateral covert action. But political realities may force Munir to do something overt, lest he project weakness.
The Pakistani military, however, has enough coercive power to force its domestic critics into silence.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.