Strategic Entanglements Through Proxies: Case Study On Current Iran-Pakistan Conflict – OpEd


n January 16, 2024, the Middle East, freshly but deeply wounded by the repercussions of the ongoing Palestine-Israel conflict, saw another rift unfold between Iran and Pakistan. The former, as part of a clandestine operation, launched missiles that struck Koh-e-Sabz, in Balochistan, Pakistan. Iran contested that it was only seeking to target Jaish al Adl, an internationally recognized terrorist organization operating within Pakistan.

Pakistan, in demonstration of a true exemplar of tit-for-tat, struck back, and hit Saravan, in the South East of Iran, proclaiming to bomb camps of ‘armed groups.’ (BLA and BLF). With casualties on either side, accompanied by a surge in insecurity, the questions arising from this perplexing situation are: What exactly precipitated a completely unprovoked, and largely unexpected strike on a nuclear country, counterintuitively during the visit of the Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, to Iran? Further, was the decision to strike a fellow Islamic Republic taken to target the ISIS affiliated Jaish al adl, or is there a bigger agenda at play here? Afterall, Jaish al Adl – an offshoot of Jundullah, an ally of ISIS, is a terrorist organization known to be covertly funded by the United States of America.  

Iran and Pakistan share a border, but more importantly, share a relationship characterized by brotherhood – with ideals derived from their common religion; Islam, and conversely, hostility. The countries have long struggled to rid themselves of terrorism, and have thus have engaged in multiple skirmishes at the border.

Additionally, Pakistan and Iran have a common ally, a global imperium – China. China’s shrewd ability to secure strategic partnerships across Middle East – including Iran, and Pakistan, adds to its influence. Pakistan, and Iran are not only a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation but have entered into multiple mutually advantageous bilateral agreements with China.

Naturally, an ‘uncalled-for strike’ by Iran in Pakistan on Tuesday rattled China, given its closely-knit relationship with the countries. Mao Ying, Foreign Minister China advised the countries to exercise “restraint,” while stating that both were “friendly to China, and countries with important influence.” Evidently, the dynamics of the global arena are shifting, and with economies like China, complemented by a world-class military, animosities are likely to emerge. The country becoming almost equally as stable, and well-off as the USA, what seems to be a security dilemma, but with the burden of insecurity on the USA is inevitable. 

One may as well expect efforts aimed at weakening China – primarily through proxy warfare, whereby non-state actors provoke conflicts in a particular country, and which is becoming increasingly common by the day. Iran claims that the strike was purely to target Jaish al adl, an organization affiliated with ISIS, but one may wonder if the ISIS card is being leveraged to achieve a greater agenda – like maybe rattling China?

An Al Jazeera article reported Ali Vaez, an Iranian government official contending that the few skirmishes in the country the past few weeks were “perpetrated at the hands of Israel, USA, and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).” What happens when two strategic partners of a larger country are caught in a rift? A little food for thought. 

Against their better judgment, Iran did launch subsequent strikes in Syria, claiming to target Israel, and in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Iran struck Pakistan just a few hours after the Prime-Ministers (PM) of the two seemingly “brotherly” countries met at the Davos conference. It was at the same conference that Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to the President of the USA, and Iraqi PM, M. Shia’ Al Sudani met the next day, and talked about a possible “defense” partnership to ensure Iran does not hit Iraq again. A defense partnership or a way to unnerve China, by concerting against one of its allies? That I would leave to the reader’s imagination. Is it perhaps more than, as analysts suggest “a show of strength at a time Iran feels especially threatened?”

There’s a popular saying that goes, “While the character of war may change, the nature of war does not.” Just like that, Proxy warfare, with its distinct characteristics, refers to the increasing anarchy in the global paradigm, allowing countries to take indirect but effective measures against possible “threats.” In that, countries artfully place proxies to dismantle strategic partnerships, to eventually weaken a relatively powerful country. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for instance – a fruit of the successful partnership between China, and Pakistan, is perceived to stimulate economic growth, by providing ample opportunities to the two, making trade easier, boosting tourism, and most importantly linking China to the Arabian sea, and the Indian Ocean.

Similarly, Iran and China trade in oil, and consumer goods. These strategic partnerships add to China’s strength which naturally does not sit right with many countries that perceive it as a “threat.” China may as well become the sole superpower in a few years’ time. Through the use of proxies; engaging its strategic partners in entanglements, China would be at cross-roads. And if you so cunningly leverage ISIS – an adversary to get not one but two partners of China to get caught up amid a rift, China would have a lot to lose.

To put it all in perspective, the unexpected strikes in Pakistan, by Iran – justified as hunting down ISIS, could perhaps be part of a much larger agenda. There could be many forces at play behind the strikes; hiding behind what we call proxy warfare. It is also quite baffling, and ironic that the strikes were timed as such when S. Jaishankar was in Iran, the foreign minister of India, a close ally of the States, and conversely a known foe of Pakistan. Coincidence? What do you think?

Ayesha Mirza

Ayesha Mirza is a Governance and Public policy scholar at NUST and affiliated with the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).

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