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US-Iran conflict: the Baloch dilemma

By: Qambar Malik Baloch

Historically fraught US-Iran relations are again in the limelight following a US airstrike in Iraq that killed Qasem Soleimani, the notorious commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force. The airstrike came days after the US embassy in Baghdad was attacked by Iran backed militia. The US called the airstrike, a defensive measure to ensure the safety of its troops and diplomats in the Middle East. This prompted a strong response from Khamenei, threatening a severe retaliation for the killing of his top General, and at face-saving, Iran fired missiles on two US bases in Iraq. The prospect of an immediate military conflict between the two countries seems to have subsided as each party has agreed to show restraints but what if these dramatic escalations of hostilities between the two powerful rivals were to tip over into war? This article will analyze the repercussions of such a situation on the Baloch. It is based on the viewpoints of prominent scholars who have been writing on the issues of the Middle East for a long time.

The Baloch inhabit a vast area of Balochistan, stretching from south-eastern Iran to southwestern Punjab, up to the lower reaches of Helmand in Afghanistan, and to the Strait of Hormuz in the South, hence, bordering South Asia, West Asia, and Central Asia. Politically, major parts of Balochistan are under Pakistani and Iranian control making it the largest province in Pakistan and the second largest in Iran.

Balochistan’s long terrain and strategic location have for centuries been the cause of tension between regional and international powers. Historically, it became one of the casualties of the “Great Game” of the 19th century that was played between the British empire and the Czarist Russia. During the cold war era, the presumed Russian desire for warm waters of the Indian Ocean caused tremendous damage to the Baloch national resistance. At present, a web of interest groups, and sometimes overlapping actors sprawl across its territory. Chinese with their ambitious plans of CPEC, Pakistani state-sponsored terrorist outfits and so-called non-state actors, including the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi-Al-Alami, Taliban splinter groups and the ISIS are using the Baloch land as a launching pad for the bargain in the peace talks between Taliban and the US on the future of Afghanistan. By default, Balochistan has already been the place of a proxy war between the Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran led by Ayatollahs. Both, the Saudi influenced Islamabad and Tehran have accused each other of providing sanctuary to hostile militant elements. This medley of activities is being orchestrated in a region where the Baloch nationalists are fighting a bloody and protracted resistance movement against religious fundamentalist states of Pakistan and Iran. This has transformed the whole Balochistan into a war zone.

Both Pakistan and Iran have constructed multiple military cantonments and naval bases in Balochistan. Pakistan hosts its largest Naval base in Ormara and other military cantonments are under construction in the port city of Gwadar where Saudi Arabia has promised to invest in a multi-billion Oil-refinery which was initially proposed by Iran but due to strong US pressure, it could not be materialized. It has recently constructed a Naval airbase in the Kech district which borders Iranian Balochistan. On the other side of the Goldsmid line that divides the Baloch land, the Iranians constructed a multi-purpose military airbase in Konarak on the west of the port city of Chabahar, and Pasabandar where the Ayatollahs have long been developing a huge Naval base. 

In the likelihood of a calculated or a full-fledged US-Iran armed conflict, in either case, the Baloch will be engulfed in flames by default, due to the strategic location of their land, The US supremacy of conventional war can push Iran to opt for a war of attrition, which in turn will compel the US to look to the Saudi backed proxies in Balochistan. With an already war-stricken people with no voice in the decision-making circles, this will have some devastating economic, political and humanitarian ramifications for Balochistan. The current trade between Iran and Pakistan amounts to below $1 billion with most exports from Iran. The Makkuran region of Balochistan in Pakistan, also the recipient of 35MW electricity from Iran is most likely to be the first to feel the heat at its doorsteps. The closure of the Iran-Pakistan border will make thousands in Makkuran go jobless in no time coupled with severe food shortages with its effects felt across Balochistan. Taftan being the only crossing point between Iran and Pakistan will be another casualty. 

Pakistan’s desire to play a role in the Middle East has led its territory to be involved in proxy wars in the past. says Husain Haqqani, an ex-Pakistan envoy to the US. Pakistan has also sought to be an important American ally in the Greater Middle East. Thus, Iran and Saudi Arabia have not only supported proxies inside Pakistan but recruited Pakistanis to fight their battles in other countries. 

Haqqani believed that tensions and friction will continue between Iran and the U.S. but as of now, neither country wants to instigate war. Both countries are playing to the domestic public. It suits both sides to say that they have taken revenge and claim that the other side has de-escalated. Each side believes it can take action, satisfy its domestic audience, and yet stay below the threshold of war. Although the fear of military conflict between Iran and the U.S. has subsided if such a conflict does occur, its fallout would be significant for Pakistan and Balochistan would be particularly impacted. Not only does Pakistan need to be watchful about sectarian attacks inside the country but the government may, once again, have to balance relations between Gulf Arab countries and Iran. It is a difficult balance to maintain. 

Mohammad Taqi, a Pakistani-American columnist believes that Iran is not done avenging General Qassem Soleimani’s killing and will likely heat up the region where the US may be forced to rethink its presence. Any miscalculation from either side, in this fog of pre-war, can lead to an all-out war. “For Iran, the US exit from Iraq is the first domino it wishes to fall. On the other hand, the US is not done with Iran either. The US planners salivate at the idea of regime change in Iran and of egging on the Iranian protestors who have legitimate grievances against the brutal clerical government”. said Taqi. 

Discarding any possible involvement of Pakistan in the conflict, Taqi believes that, “It is unlikely Pakistan will overtly lend any bases or forces to either side. That is not to say that the country’s powerful army would not use the opportunity to encash this neutrality by milking Iran’s Arab adversaries and the US. The reasons for that are pretty straight forward. Unlike with Afghanistan, Iran and China are Pakistan’s two neighbours that it doesn’t have a territorial conflict with. It is unlikely that Imran Khan and his mentor General Qamar Bajwa would whimsically change that scenario by letting Pakistan’s territory get used against Iran”. Furthermore, the domestic blowback of an Iran-averse move by Pakistan is overblown. The Pakistani Shia are neither militarized nor particularly in tow after Iran. Other than occasional street demonstrations, the Pakistani Shia are unlikely to do anything radical. It seems unlikely that a scenario would play out where the things change materially for Balochistan, and more specifically for the Baloch separatist or liberation struggles — depending upon one’s perspective. Neither Pakistan nor Iran are about to let go of the Baloch lands. If there’s one thing that both these states fully agree upon is to keep the historic Baloch homeland divided, added Taqi.

Baloch nationalists have termed the Saudi investments either in Gwadar or in Saindak both close to the Iranian borders as part of Saudi-Iran longstanding war for dominance in the Middle East. Haqqani, however, believes that the Saudi investment in Gwadar has more to do with Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Pakistani military’s desire to balance massive Chinese loans (through CPEC) with investments from friendly Muslim countries (like Saudi Arabia and UAE). Saudi Arabia certainly does not want Pakistan to side with Iran and would like to woo it away from Iran through investments. Pakistan’s problem is that whether it is Chinese or Saudi investment in Gwadar, Islamabad has not taken on board the interests of Baloch people so far.

Many analysts saw the resumption of the US military training program for Pakistan as an indicator for a US policy shift concerning Iran. “At a time when Afghanistan and Iran remain important to the U.S. and more American troops are being sent to the Middle East, it makes sense from U.S. point of view to continue to maintain ties with the Pakistani military,” said Haqqani.

The Baloch contentions

The Baloch scholar and Washington D.C. based lawyer, Mohammad Hassan Hosseinbor observes that given President Trump’s isolationist tendencies and his stated goal of disengagement from “endless wars” in the Middle East, a full-blown war between the US and Iran is unlikely. President Trump believes that the US policy of “maximum pressure” and its crippling economic sanctions aimed at suffocating the Iranian economy is working and will continue until the clerical regime stops its nuclear program, halts its support for terrorism, and ceases its destabilizing activities in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. In his views, short of total war, President Trump will use all economic, political, and diplomatic measures at its disposal to force the Iranian regime to change its policies. Given the strong congressional opposition and the 2020 presidential election, President Trump is likely to delay any major military action against the clerical regime until after the 2020 elections. Nevertheless, if war breaks out, Iran is certain to use its extensive network of proxies namely Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to attack and undermine the US interests in the region, believes Hosseinbor.

It is unlikely for the Baloch not to get affected, any full-blown war between the US and Iran will inevitably affect the plight of Baloch and other non-Persian national groups including Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Turkmen, and Lors, which together are more than 50% of the Iranian population. Given the brutal repression and oppression suffered by these national groups under both the clerical and monarchial regimes, they are likely to rise and assert their autonomy. The Baloch, however, will be directly affected by such a war. Balochistan’s coastline, stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to Karachi, will be at the center of the storm. The US could impose a no-fly zone over Balochistan as it did over Iraqi Kurdistan after the first Gulf War in 1991. This will internationalize the question of Balochistan and may pave the way for Western and international support for Baloch Cause. Any US-Iran conflict is certain to embolden the opposition groups seeking the overthrow of the clerical dictatorship and could lead to a civil war involving the regime, pro-shah followers, and Mujahidin Khalq, all Persian-dominated groups. In such a scenario, the Baloch and non-Persian groups are certain to reassert their rule over their respective homelands. 

President Trump has also threatened to end Iran as a country if challenged by the clerical regime, and major wars have changed the maps of the world numerous times. Therefore, Iran may disintegrate due to a civil war or be divided by the great powers as a result of such a war with the US. Such a scenario could raise the prospects for an independent Balochistan much higher than it is today. reiterated Hosseinbor.

According to Baloch intellectual and writer, Dr Naseer Dashti, it is quite obvious that Pakistan will play an active role against Iran in any conflict with the US. The talk of Pakistani ruling military elite of taking a neutral stance in the expected hot war between the US and Iran is just rhetoric to cool down the emotions of people in Pakistan who have been taught the lessons of a non-existing Muslim brotherhood for decades. Pakistan being a client-state cannot remain neutral in any potential conflict. However, it is the nature of the conflict and the dimension of Pakistani involvement that will to a great degree determine the scale of impacts on Balochistan.

In his opinion, the protracted conflict between Iran and the US would be a turning point in the context of the Baloch national struggle. It will benefit the Baloch resistance in various ways as the Baloch are the natural ally of the democratic forces led by the West and can play a vital role in the destabilization of Iran. This by default will bring the question of Baloch nationalism in the policymaking circles as a matter of some importance and by default, the Baloch resistance in Pakistan will be among the beneficiaries. According to Dr Dashti, being the ally of the US in the region, the role of India will be pivotal in getting some sort of support from the West for the Baloch cause. The degree of support for an independent Balochistan after the demise of Iran or Pakistan from the West is highly dependent on the degree of influence that India can exert on the US and Europe in this regard. However, Dr Dashti is very pessimistic about the benefit of a limited conflict between Iran and the US for the Baloch national resistance either in Iran or in Pakistan. He believes that such a short-term limited strike on Iran would adversely affect the Baloch people who are already facing a miserable economic situation and it will not compel the policymakers in the west to seriously consider the Baloch Question in Iran or Pakistan.

By all accounts, in any protracted conflict, there will be a chance for the Baloch to intensify their just struggle for self-determination by organizing and consolidating their forces inside Balochistan; by joining other non-Persian groups to form a united front against the clerical regime or its remnants; and by attracting international support for Baloch right of self-determination. It is high time for Baloch nationalist circles on both sides of the Goldsmid Line to analyze the situation logically, to adopt pragmatic strategies and to streamline their efforts in getting international attention. Any full-blown war with the US could hasten the collapse of the Persian state, paving the way for the liberation of Western Balochistan. This would ultimately accelerate the demise of the religious state of Pakistan and might realize the long-cherished dream of the Baloch for the establishment of a greater Balochistan. Nevertheless, all this depends on how the event shapes up between the Ayatollahs and the Americans and how the Baloch leadership comprehends the situation and whether they are capable of adopting strategies that can ultimately bring them closer to the powers that matter in the resolution of the Baloch national question in Iran and Pakistan. 

Qambar Malik Baloch is Editor of Balochistan Affairs. He writes on various socio-political issues facing the Baloch and Balochistan.

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