The Implications of Iranian Assertiveness Toward Pakistan
By: Stratfor.comDecember 21, 2010
The Middle East and South Asia have no shortage of conflicts and on any given day there are developments on multiple issues. Monday, however, was different: Another fault line appeared to emerge. Iranian leaders used some very stern language in demanding that Pakistan act against the Sunni Baluchi Islamist militant group Jundallah, which recently staged suicide attacks against Shiite religious gatherings in the Iranian port city of Chahbahar.

The Islamic republic's senior-most military leader, Chief of the Joint Staff Command of Iran's Armed Forces Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, threatened that Tehran would take unilateral action if Islamabad failed to prevent cross-border terrorism. Separately, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, and demanded that Pakistani security forces apprehend "known terrorists" and hand them over to Iranian authorities. This is not the first time that Jundallah has become a source of tension between the two neighbors. However, this time, the Iranian response was different: The apex leadership of Iran threatened to take matters into its own hands.

It's even more interesting that the latest Jundallah attack was not that significant, especially compared to the attack from a little more than a year ago when as many as half a dozen senior generals from the ground forces of Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, were killed in a Jundallah attack in the border town of Pishin. At the time, however, Iran was much more mild in terms of pressing Pakistan to take action against Jundallah. Over the years, there has also been significant cooperation between Tehran and Islamabad leading to arrests of the group's leaders and main operatives, including its founders.

"Tehran is likely concerned about how the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan will impact its own security and sees a situation in which it can enhance its influence in its southeastern neighbor."

Why is Iran now escalating matters with Pakistan? The answer likely has to do with the Iranian government feeling confident in other foreign policy areas. It has been successful in having a Shiite-dominated government of its preference installed in Iraq. Also, for the first time, it appears to be negotiating from a position of relative strength on the nuclear issue.

Iran is also a major regional stakeholder in Afghanistan and a competitor of Pakistan there. It is therefore likely that Iran is now flexing its muscles on its eastern flank to showcase its regional rise. The Iranians have also been watching the fairly rapid destabilization that has taken place in Pakistan in recent years and sense both a threat and an opportunity. Tehran is likely concerned about how the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan will impact its own security and sees a situation in which it can enhance its influence in its southeastern neighbor.

It is too early to say anything about how Iran will go about projecting power across its frontier with Pakistan. However, there are geopolitical implications from this new Iranian assertiveness. The most serious one is obviously for Pakistan, which already has to deal with U.S. forces engaging in cross-border action along the country's northwestern border with Afghanistan. Islamabad can't afford pressures from Tehran on the southwestern extension of that border (an area where Pakistan is dealing with its own Baluchi rebellion). Any such move on the part of Iran could encourage India to increase pressure on its border with Pakistan. After all, India is a much bigger target of Pakistani-based militants than Iran, but has thus far not been able to get Pakistan to yield to its demands on cracking down on anti-India militants. New Delhi would love to take advantage of this new dynamic developing between Islamabad and Tehran.

At the very least, Monday's Iranian statements reinforce perceptions that Pakistan is a state infested by Islamist militants of various stripes that threaten pretty much every country that shares a border with it (including Pakistan's closest ally, China). Certainly, Pakistan doesn't want to see problems on a third border and will try to address Iranian concerns. But the Pakistani situation is such that it is unlikely that Islamabad will be able to placate Tehran.

In terms of ramifications, Monday's developments are actually not limited to only those countries that have a border with Pakistan. Iranian demands on Pakistan have likely set off alarm bells in Saudi Arabia, which is already terrified of Iran's rise in the Persian Gulf region and the Levant. Pakistan constitutes a major Saudi sphere of influence and Riyadh is not about to let Tehran play in the South Asia country. Pakistan has been a Saudi-Iranian proxy battleground since the 1980s and the latest Iranian statements could intensify the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict in the country.

Increased sectarian conflict in Pakistan will only exacerbate the jihadist insurgency in the country, thereby further eroding internal stability. Such a situation is extremely problematic for the United States, which is already trying to contain a rising Iran and has a complex love-hate relationship with Pakistan. There is also the problem that the success of America's Afghan strategy is contingent upon Washington establishing a balance of power between Iran and Pakistan in Afghanistan.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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