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Iran and Pakistan have traded attacks on each other's soil recently. Both claimed to be targeting terrorist groups based just over the border.

Both countries have professed outrage at the strikes on their territory and the move has strained relationships between them. If the deaths of the combatants themselves was without objection (and it doesn't appear to be), then I would have assumed the two countries could work together.

As it was, they both needed to employ long ranged weapons so as not to enter* the other's air space or place troops on the ground. As it stands, both claim that a number of children were killed during these attacks, something that could (presumably) have been better avoided if they weren't so limited in the tactics used.

Is there a larger reason why Iran launched its strike without the permission of the Pakistani government and risked civilian deaths?

*By "enter" I mean by manned attacks. Each side keeping their troops clear of danger. They still flew drones and carried out attacks on each other's territory.

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    "both needed to employ long ranged weapons so as not to invade the other's air space or". That's so they don't put their own pilots at risk. It's still an "invasion" in legal terms, or more precisely an armed attack, whether manned or unmanned means are used. Jan 20 at 20:58
  • @Fizz Good point. I've rewritten it to be slightly more explicit in that sense. I'd meant no manned entry into their air space. Jan 21 at 11:16

6 Answers 6

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Question:

Why aren't Iran and Pakistan working together?

Short Answer:

Religious-based mistrust, conflicting alliances, conflicting security interests, decades-long proxy wars against each other, political meddling inside each others' countries, and both countries are strongly allied with the other's greatest existential enemies. Pakistan's greatest existential enemy is India, which has close ties with Iran. Iran's greatest existential enemy and rival for leadership in the Moslem world is Saudi Arabia, which has very close ties with Pakistan.

Answer:

  1. religious-based mistrust

These sects of Islam have a long and contentious relationship.

  1. conflicting security interests

  2. conflicting political alliances

  • In 2013, BBC reported using multiple sources that Saudi Arabia has funded nuclear weapons development in Pakistan,
  1. political meddling inside each others countries

  2. decades-long proxy wars against each other

From Comments:

@C.F.G. I don't think India has closer ties than Pakistan with Iran because India is killing Indian Muslims.

This is why I think you are wrong.

  1. The great majority of Moslems in India are Sunni, like Pakistan. India activities towards them would not be a concern for Iran. Iran is Shiite, which have a contentious relationship with the larger Sunni branch of Islam.
  2. While Pakistan and Iran have been supporting proxy wars against each other for decades. India and Iran signed a defense cooperation agreement in December 2002.
  3. Iran is the second-largest supplier of crude oil to India,
  4. India is one of the largest foreign investors in Iran's oil and gas industry. Petro chemicals being Iran's largest most profitable industry.

There are some big differences in foreign policy, but over all India Iran relations are quite cordial, which Pakistan Iran relations are outright hostile.

India–Iran relations

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  • might be worth adding a bit about en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_program_of_Saudi_Arabia as an example of how deep the ties between the countries (probably) go. """In 2013, BBC reported using multiple sources that Saudi Arabia has funded nuclear weapons development in Pakistan, and various sources also told BBC Persian, regarding Saudi government belief that they are able to gain nuclear weapons at will."""
    – eps
    Jan 20 at 1:42
  • I don't think India has closer ties than Pakistan with Iran because India is killing Indian Muslims.
    – C.F.G
    Jan 20 at 16:12
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    @C.F.G, responded at the end of my answer.
    – JMS
    Jan 20 at 18:56
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    @C.F.G. Iran treats them very well and considers them religious brothers. ? and drops bombs on them, and sponsors proxy wars against them, Internally Iran's Sunnis have long struggled with poverty and discrimination and are suspiciously viewed as the country's fifth column. Iran’s Uneasy Relationship with its Sunni Minority I think it's fair to say Iran has a contentious relationship with Sunni Islamic countries. If not give me a few Sunni Islamic countries with close ties to Iran?
    – JMS
    Jan 20 at 20:18
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    @C.F.G. Taliban and Jaish al-adl. are both supported by the Pakistani government against Iran. I noticed you didn't provide any Sunni majority countries with friendly ties to Iran? I guess I'm not sure of what your argument is. If it's that Iran's Shia clerics don't have a problem with Sunni's, just some Sunni's (Saudi, Yemen, Lebanon, Pakistan, Egypt, etc etc ) then I will concede the point.
    – JMS
    Jan 20 at 20:37
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Iran has its fingers in numerous players in the region

That brings us to the Pakistan airstrike. CNN notes this

Both nations have long fought militants in the restive Baloch region along the border. But while the two countries share a common separatist enemy, it is highly unusual for either side to attack militants on each other’s soil.

Reuters elaborates

Ethnic Baloch militants have battled the government for decades for a separate state, saying the central government unfairly exploits the province's rich gas and mineral resources of Balochistan province, which borders Afghanistan and Iran. The BLF is among the insurgents who often target gas projects, infrastructure and security posts there, but have begun launching attacks in other parts of Pakistan.

It's impossible to ignore the timing. The Iraq airstrike was only two days before. Given the recent instability in the region, it seems like Iran is making sure that regional players understand that it is still a power to be reckoned with (opinion piece)

It is vital to understand the motive behind Iran’s strikes in Pakistan and their potential implications. Tehran’s miscalculated actions should not only be seen as a retaliation against Jaish al-Adl aimed at provoking a response from Pakistan. Instead, they should be seen as intended to demonstrate Iranian military capability and send a message to the United States, Israel, and Arab US allies indicating Iranian military prowess and readiness to confront any external aggression. The Iranian ballistic missile strikes in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan also highlight Iran’s ability to project power beyond its borders and could have significant implications for regional security. The Pakistani response to the Iranian strikes has been influenced by a variety of factors, including internal political dynamics, the nature of the strikes, and the perception that its deterrent capabilities had broken down. However, Pakistan’s unflinching resolve to protect and defend its national security against all threats is clearly demonstrated by its response.

TL;DR

It seems likely that Iran wanted to send a message to its neighbors by acting unilaterally in a way that would not start a full-scale conflict. Pakistan simply responded in kind.

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According to the recent history, Iran and Pakistan have worked together almost well except in the fight against terrorism and Iran–Pakistan gas pipeline project that Iran has already built 900 kilometers of the pipeline on its own soil and is waiting for the 781-kilometer Pakistani side of the pipeline to be constructed.

In my opinion, Iran's attack on the headquarters of terrorists is justified because since 2005, Iran has repeatedly warned Pakistan to destroy that terrorist group, but they have not done anything so far. Although, every time after a terrorist attack in Iran, Pakistan has vowed to cooperate with Iran in investigating the terrorist act but in practice they have done nothing. See also: Gen. Soleimani Cautions Pakistan to Stop Terrorists along Borders with Iran

In a recent interview, Shamshad Ahmad Khan, Pakistan’s former Foreign Secretary said:

"Pakistan and Iran enjoy deep diplomatic ties, and the relations are not at a normal level."

There are no fundamental differences between the two countries, he said, adding that there are only some strategic issues, the only reason being the geopolitical position.

Both countries are very important in the region, he said, noting that Iran and Pakistan have always assisted each other if necessary.

Whenever Pakistan is in trouble, Iran has declared readiness, he stated.

"Iran supported us in the 1965 war, and in 2002, when Indian forces reached the Pakistani border, Iran supported us at the time,” he underlined.

Pakistan’s former Foreign Secretary went on to say that Pakistan has also advocated Iran in various situations.

This is a sign of the depth of relations between the two countries, he further noted.

The expert said that there is currently a caretaker government in Pakistan and it has come under attack from Iran. The question is why?

“But in the current situation, the problems have been pressured by the United States and Israeli regime,” the analyst added.

Terrorist groups operating in Iran are under the protection of foreign powers. Both countries are well aware of which group is under the auspices of which foreign power, Ahmad Khan said.

Jaish al-Adl is under the auspices of the United States, which has carried out several operations in Iran. The US is targeting Iran because of Iran's support for Palestine and using its proxies like Jaish al-Adl, he added.

When the Taliban tried to control the area, similar incidents happened every day. Even when a member of the IRGC was martyred in Afghanistan, Pakistan was accused, but this was resolved through dialogue.

Anyway, According to Reuters, Pakistan tells Iran it wants to build trust after tit-for-tat strikes.

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I think this might be simpler than it seems. Since roughly halfway through the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, targeted, long-range attacks across international borders have become normalized. Most of the major world players have done it, usually for anti-terrorist activities or the assassination of enemy leadership, so it's unsurprising that regional powers have picked up on the practice. It's a strange loophole in international conventions: no 'boots on the ground' are involved so it can't be cast as an incursion or invasion; the act itself is generally over and done before any military response can be mounted; the people killed are (often) not people any nation wants to be seen supporting or defending. The situation invariably fizzles out as a diplomatic grumble, never rising to the 'declaration of hostilities' stage, so there's no real downside to doing it at need.

There's noting particularly interesting about Pakistan and Iran in this regard, and certainly nothing to do with their religious similarities or differences. This is merely a new tool that modern states have in their toolshed, and no state is particularly shy about using it.

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  • This doesn't answer the question. The question is "Why is there not sufficient cooperation between Iran and Pakistan to cause there to be alternatives that are preferable to airstrikes? Jan 21 at 2:52
  • @Acccumulation: It answers the very last question. I suppose I should have more explicitly said that these attacks in no way preclude Iran and Pakistan from cooperating or working together in other areas. These kind of attacks just seems to have become the 'new normal' for relations between states. Jan 21 at 6:02
  • "no 'boots on the ground' are involved so it can't be cast as an incursion or invasion". It's definitely an armed attack according to the UN charter (and a violation of soverenigty). What you seem to be saying is that Iran has also implicitly adopted the "unwilling or unable" doctrine. Jan 22 at 11:57
  • @Fizz: Yeah, but every nation that does this claims they weren't attacking the state, but attacking bad actors who happened to be in that state. It's not as though these attacks target infrastructure, military bases, or state leadership… And no, that's not a good excuse — it's like purposely poking someone with an umbrella and then saying 'oh, sorry' — but it seems to work. And yes, that's an easy doctrine to adopt because there's no criteria for it. You just have to say the other state doesn't seem willing or able. Jan 22 at 19:11
  • FWTW, this 2016 piece that I'm sure I've quoted before in some other answer (that now I can't find, hah!) says Iran had already implicitly endorsed the doctrine by then. There are some quotes from Iranian letters to the UN from 2001 (in re them holding Iraq's gov't of then responsible for attacks by MKO etc.) In fact the most explicit one might have been in a 1999 letter on the same issue. Jan 22 at 19:16
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The level of animosity over these strikes should not be exaggerated. True, they apparently came as a surprise to Pakistan. E.g. CNN says that only a week before Iran and Pakistan held joint naval exercises and had high-level meetings [in Davos].

OTOH after the exchange of strikes, both countries moved to paper over the affair. E.g.:

[Pakistani Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas] Jilani underscored "the close brotherly relations" between the two countries and expressed Islamabad's "desire" to work with Tehran "based on [the] spirit of mutual trust and cooperation," the Pakistani statement said. He "stressed that respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty must underpin this cooperation," it added.

The Iranian Embassy in Islamabad said on its official X social media platform that [Iranian FM] Amir-Abdollahian had "a very good phone talk to restore relations to a high level" and the two countries "can set a new record in de-escalation ... by returning the ambassadors to the capitals" and mutual visits of foreign ministers of Iran and Pakistan.

And consider who's been hit: both countries hit Baluch separatists, basically, just those hiding on (and possibly silently tolerated by) the other side. Who did Iran [claim to] hit: Jaish al-Adl.

WHO IS JAISH AL-ADL? Jaish al-Adl, or the Army of Justice, surfaced in 2012. It mainly comprises members of the Sunni militant Jundullah group, which was weakened after Iran arrested most of its members.

The anti-Iranian group wants independence for Iran’s eastern Sistan and Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan provinces. These goals make it a common target for both governments.

And who did Pakistan claim to hit?

Pakistan said its strikes targeted members of the separatist Baluchistan Liberation Army and Baluchistan Liberation Front [...]

Yeah, these are different groups, with somewhat different ideology, but all are Baluch, basically.

As recently as December 2023, 11 Iranian police officers were killed and several injured when Jaish al-Adl militants attacked a police station in Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan province.

In 2023, a total of 10 Pakistani soldiers and security personnel were killed in three separate attacks in Balochistan carried out by militants reportedly operating from the Iranian side.

enter image description here

The BLA and the BLF have been accused of hitting Chinese targets [too] in Pakistan. Although China in the past called for "severe punishment" on these groups, this time they called for restraint and offered to mediate between Iran and Pakistan.

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Is there a larger reason why Iran launched its strike without the permission of the Pakistani government and risked civilian deaths?

Iran launched missiles into Pakistan, claiming that it aimed to eliminate the terrorists of the group Jeysh al-Adl.In fact Iran sought to retaliate for the terrorist attack during Qassim Soleimani's death anniversary.

On a larger scale, this attack can be seen as part of the ongoing proxy conflict between Iran and Israel, as the Islamic Republic attempted to restore its dignity. Following the terrorist attack on October 7th, Israel invaded Gaza to eliminate Hamas, and attempts to halt Israel's actions failed. Since then, the conflict between the two countries has escalated. Israel has assassinated several high-ranking Hamas and IRGC members, prompting the Islamic Republic to respond in an effort to restore its dignity. They launched missiles through their proxies, Hezbollah and the Houthis. Recently, Iran also fired missiles in Northern Iraq and Pakistan, resulting in the death of an Iraqi civilian and two children in Pakistan.

In general, this was an attempt by the Islamic Republic to retaliate for recent setbacks in Lebanon, Gaza, and the terrorist attack in Kerman. However, Iran miscalculated the situation because Pakistan, unlike Iraq, possesses a strong army and chose to retaliate.

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    The large twin bombing that killed 90 people in Iran was not organized by this group in Pakistan. By most accounts, it was the work of ISIS-K affiliates coming from Afghanistan, and ironically set free by the Taliban after their takeover iranintl.com/en/202401205096 Jan 22 at 12:22
  • @Fizz Yes it is said that ISIS is behind the attack but the Islamic Republic used it as a pretext, anyway the real motivation of the attack in Pakistan isn't clear, I see it a blind attack like missiles fired by Houthis or Hezbollah.
    – TMFG
    Jan 22 at 12:26

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