Pakistan and Iran aim to dial down tensions as China offers mediation

ISLAMABAD (PEN) : Pakistan and Iran have signaled that they would prefer to de-escalate tensions after trading strikes on purported militant camps in each other’s territory, though experts warn the stage is set for a proxy conflict that could haunt residents in border regions.

China, meanwhile, has made it clear that it is watching closely and wants to avoid hostilities that could threaten its Belt and Road interests in the region, offering to play a “constructive role” in managing the tensions.

After Iran launched airstrikes on targets in Pakistan earlier this week, the Pakistani military reciprocated with strikes in Iran on Thursday. But the neighbors also indicated that they did not intend to let the spat get out of hand.

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in a statement on Thursday that the government “does not allow enemies to strain the amicable and brotherly relations of Tehran and Islamabad.”

Rahim Hayat Qureshi, Pakistan’s additional foreign secretary for West Asia, echoed the sentiments. “Pakistan and Iran have fraternal [relations] and shall move [forward] to resolve all issues through positive dialogue,” he wrote on X. “It is important to restore trust and confidence that has always defined our [bilateral relations].”

A well-placed security official told Nikkei Asia on condition of anonymity that Pakistan does not want to escalate further. But he cautioned, “If Iran does something in the future, it will be dealt with [using] the same force.”

Some experts believe Pakistan’s firm response to what it termed a “blatant violation” of its sovereignty has galvanized support for the army at a challenging time. With the country due for elections on Feb. 8, the military establishment has faced unusually strong criticism from the allies of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan for allegedly sidelining his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in favor of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by his rival, Nawaz Sharif.

People gather near rubble in the aftermath of Pakistan’s military strike on an Iranian village near Saravan, in Sistan and Baluchestan Province, on Jan. 18. (Screen grab from social media video obtained by Reuters)

Sabookh Syed, a political analyst in Islamabad, said the response to Iran’s strikes has indeed increased the popularity of the army, although he did not expect this would “influence the outcome of elections in a major way.”

Border communities may have more immediate concerns than politics. While the two sides may be dialing down the overt tensions, experts fear that a proxy war could now intensify.

Kiyya Baloch, an independent security analyst, said that the reciprocal strikes had created deep mistrust between Pakistan and Iran. “The proxy war between Pakistan and Iran will significantly increase in the future,” he said, with increased militancy from the Islamist group that Iran targeted, Jaish al-Adl, and Baloch separatists likely in the months ahead.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, agreed. “Even if there is de-escalation in the coming days, trust has been shattered and each side will indeed have a stronger incentive to resort to proxy tactics to hit out at the other side,” he said, suggesting the neighbors had crossed the Rubicon.

Uncertainty hangs over districts in the south of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, far from the infrastructure and supply chains in more developed areas to the east. Residents rely on Iran for their livelihoods and daily essentials, but there are unconfirmed reports of a border closure in these districts.

“If the border is closed in the aftermath of the strikes for a prolonged time, then it can result in a humanitarian crisis in border districts,” Kiyya Baloch said. He added that over 1 million people in south Balochistan depend on border trade.

Tania Baloch, a veteran Balochistan journalist, said they would be economic as well as social repercussions. “Not only will people of Iran-bordering districts of Pakistan have a hard time earning a livelihood, but they will be under suspicion on both sides of the border,” she said.

At the same time, analysts see a real threat to Chinese interests in southern Balochistan, which is home to the port of Gwadar — center stage of the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

The spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday told reporters that Beijing hopes Pakistan and Iran will remain calm and exercise restraint. “If there is a need from the two sides, we would like to play a constructive role in cooling down the situation.”

Tania Baloch said, “For projects like CPEC to be successful, good relations with neighbors are a must and that is why China is offering to intervene, to create a scenario where CPEC interests are protected.”

Kugelman believes that China is capable of mediating between Pakistan and Iran due to its close relations with the former and rapidly growing ties with the latter, since a long-term strategic partnership accord was inked in 2021.

“Pakistan and Iran are both dependent on China for economic support,” he said, “which gives Beijing leverage over both countries.”