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Iran and Pakistan exchanged cross-border strikes last week across their shared frontier in what turned out to be a short-lived crisis, as the two regional powers quickly moved toward de-escalation.

On Tuesday, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps struck locations inside Pakistan’s Balochistan province it claimed were associated with Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni militant group from Iran’s ethnic Baloch minority that’s been responsible for attacks in Iran for over a decade.

Pakistan quickly responded with airstrikes of its own, asserting that it struck targets linked to two Pakistani Baloch separatist militant groups based in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province: the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).

The Baloch, like the Kurds, are an ethnic group spread across multiple countries. Some have pushed for a state of their own, through politics and violence. In Pakistan, Baloch militancy is largely secular. But in Iran, it has largely taken on a religious form — in part due to how the Iranian state has managed relations with the Baloch.

It’s unclear whether militants were killed on either side in last week’s attacks. But there is visual evidence of the deaths of civilians, including little children.

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Rapid De-Escalation

The rapid, public tit-for-tat was unusual for Iran and Pakistan. Both countries tend to speak of one another in friendly terms, describing the relationship as “brotherly” and shaped by cultural and religious ties.

But beneath the pleasantries, both sides have much to gripe about. Iran claims Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has either directly supported or provided safe havens for Sunni Baloch jihadists, like Jaish al-Adl and its predecessor, Jundullah, that have targeted Iran. Pakistan, for its part, claims that Iran has not only aided the BLA and the BLF, but has also allowed India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to operate from Iranian Balochistan.

The quick de-escalation only serves to push Iran-Pakistan tensions below the surface, reflecting the very controlled nature of competition between these two Muslim powers.

Last week, Pakistan recalled its ambassador to Tehran and barred Iran’s envoy from returning to Islamabad. But Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian will visit Islamabad next week. The two countries will instead move to resolve their disputes through diplomacy and other institutional arrangements. But the shadow war will likely go on.

Controlled Competition Between the IRGC and ISI

Neither Iran nor Pakistan wants to get bogged down in a fight on their shared border. Their major theaters of battle are elsewhere. Pakistan’s military is focused on its neighbor to the east — archrival India — and the multiple insurgencies that are renewing in the country’s west and northwest.

Meanwhile, Iran is laser-focused on the fight in the Levant and the Red Sea — as its Axis of Resistance takes on Iran’s adversaries. Tehran is also vigilant about defending itself from Israel’s long reach.

But Iran and Pakistan — and, more specifically, the IRGC and the ISI — have been strategic competitors for decades. The IRGC and ISI are their respective countries’ chief instruments of regional power projection. Since the 1980s, the two organizations have been among the leading state backers of militant Islamist networks. Those networks have to some extent, been operating in separate theaters: for example, the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e Taiba in Kashmir.

But their theaters of operation have overlapped, including within Pakistan itself. Shia Iran sought to export its revolution in the 1980s. But Pakistan was ruled by a general at the time, Zia ul-Haq, who spearheaded his own Islamicizing campaign in Pakistan and Afghanistan, reflecting his country’s Sunni majority.

The IRGC cultivated its own network of Shia political parties and militant groups in Pakistan, some of which assertively promoted Khomeini’s brand of revolutionary Islam. In response, General Zia propped up anti-Shia militant groups, like Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan.

Pakistan later saw multiple sectarian wars that morphed into anti-state insurgencies backed by al-Qaeda and, later, the so-called Islamic State.

In the 1990s into the early years after 9/11, Iran and Pakistan supported competing factions in Afghanistan’s civil war. Pakistan backed Sunni Pashtuns: first Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and then the Afghan Taliban. And Iran supported the Northern Alliance, in concert with India and Russia. After 9/11, Iran actually aided the U.S. in ousting the Afghan Taliban. But, years later, it would back the Afghan Taliban insurgency to bloody the U.S. and drive it out of the region.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Iran has recruited Pakistani and Afghan Shias to fight — largely as cannon fodder — in the Fatemiyoun and Zeinabiyoun militias in that war-torn country.

The IRGC also poached Uzair Baloch, an ethnic Baloch drug kingpin from Karachi’s restive Lyari neighborhood after he fled Pakistan Army operations from Iran. Lyari is home to Baloch who’ve migrated to the area from Iran over many generations.

In recent years, Iran and Pakistan have sought institutional arrangements to secure their shared border. Those may resume.

But statements from Iranian and Pakistani diplomats will only partly give indication of where their relationship is heading. The real game, still, will be played in the shadows.

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.

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