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Explainer: Pakistan-Iran conflict and the big Sunni-Shia divide

Attacks and retaliatory attacks come amid regional hostilities in Middle East over Israel-Hamas conflict

Explainer: Pakistan-Iran conflict and the big Sunni-Shia divide

A police officer stands guard at the main entry gate of Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad on Thursday. AP/PTI

Tribune Web Desk

Vibha Sharma

Chandigarh, January 18

India on Wednesday called Iran’s missile and drone attacks in Pakistan a matter between the two countries, adding that it understands actions taken in self-defence. “This is a matter between Iran and Pakistan. Insofar as India is concerned, we have an uncompromising position of zero tolerance towards terrorism. We understand actions that countries take in their self-defence,” said the Ministry of External Affairs.

Iran on Tuesday launched airstrikes on Pakistani soil, targeting the bases of Jaish al-Adl—a “Sunni-Baloch terrorist group”—in Panjgur, Balochistan. 

On Thursday, Pakistan retaliated with what it termed “precision military strikes” against “terrorist hideouts” in Iran’s Siestan-Balochistan province.

Pakistan was not the only country Iran targeted.

It also launched missile and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria, and announced its responsibility—developments that heightened concerns over the possibility of a wider conflict in the Middle East region amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

As per Iran, strikes in Iraq were on “Israeli spy bases linked to Mossad” in northern Iraq and in Syria, locations associated with “anti-Iran terror groups”.

Iranian forces’ strikes are “in line with combating terrorism and legitimate self-defence…We have no reservations when it comes to securing our national interest with any other country,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian was quoted as saying, defending the actions. 

Baghdad has recalled its ambassador to Iran and so has Islamabad.

Pakistan has also suspended all planned high-level bilateral visits with the neighbour.

The neighbourhood

Pakistan shares its borders with Afghanistan and Iran, both Islamic countries. The difference, however, is that while Afghanistan, like Pakistan, is a Sunni-majority country, Iran is a Shia-majority nation.

This itself is a cause of major sectarian divide between the two neighbours, say geopolitical experts.

The international boundary which separates Iran and Pakistan demarcates the Iranian province of Siestan and Baluchistan from the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Basically the boundary cuts through the region known as Balochistan—an area centred in Persia (Iran), Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Measuring more than 900 km (904 km to 909 km, according to various reports), the border is also seen as a “hotbed of drug trafficking and militancy”. “The Balochistan region ranges across both countries and sectarian differences and Balochi separatist activities add to the tensions,” they add.

The Jaish al-Adl, incidentally, is a designated Sunni terrorist group by the US and Iran” and has a “long history of terrorist activities”.

While Pakistan and Iran have long fought militants in the Baloch region, the latest escalation comes amid regional hostilities in the Middle East. Notably, backed by Iran, Houthi rebels have also been attacking merchant ships and military vessels in the Red Sea. Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria have also launched attacks at US military positions in the two countries.

Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict

According to the History channel, though the two main sects within Islam—Sunni and Shia—agree on most of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Islam, a bitter split between the two groups dates back “some 14 centuries”.

“The divide originated with a dispute over who should succeed Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Islamic faith he introduced.

“Today, about 85% of Muslims around the world are Sunni while 15% are Shia, according to an estimate by the Council on Foreign Relations. While Shia represent majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan and a plurality in Lebanon, Sunnis are the majority in more than 40 other countries, from Morocco to Indonesia,” its website states.

Meanwhile, according to the World Factbook of the CIA, of the total 99.6% Muslim population in Iran, Shias are 90-95% and Sunnis 5-10%.

So far as Pakistan is concerned, its 96.5% Muslim population include 85-90% Sunnis and 10-15% Shias.

The website explains that “despite their differences, Sunni and Shia have lived alongside each other in relative peace for most of history. But starting in the late 20th century, the schism deepened, exploding into violence in many parts of the Middle East as extreme brands of Sunni and Shia Islam battled for both religious and political supremacy”.

As per experts, the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide is one of the main reasons for the bitter relationship between Iran and Pakistan.

According to an article, ‘The Saudi-Iran Factor in Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Conflict’ in the Middle East Institute, a think-tank, Pakistan has a predominantly Sunni population; however, it is also home to the second largest Shia population in the world.

“This puts Pakistan in a unique dilemma; that is, caught in a Saudi-Iran sectarian tug of war. The salient Sunni and Shia identity in Pakistan created during the 1980s to 1990s, as a result of the state’s exclusionary policies of Sunni-centric Islamisation, violence against Shias by Sunni sectarian militants, and state patronage given to such outfits and Iranian Revolution, are sensitive to geopolitics in the Middle East and Pakistan’s policy towards Saudi Arabia and Iran,” it says.

Iran-Pakistan issues

Experts say Iran and Pakistan share a “complicated history of bilateral relations”.

However, Iran’s “hot pursuit” against “anti-Iran Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl for attacks on Iranian border security guards” and “Iranian connection with Shia groups and entities” became more pronounced since the “Syrian civil war”.

Meanwhile, geopolitics of the Middle East has also sharpened the sectarian ideologies between Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan, they add.


About The Author

The Tribune Web Desk brings you the latest news, analysis and insights from the region, India and around the world. Follow the Tribune Wed Desk for not just breaking news stories but wide-ranging coverage of events.

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