Security Before Ideology: South Asia's Most Overlooked Regional Rivalry

Dialogue over the struggle for regional power in South Asia typically concerns the same few conflicts. Pundits typically discuss India and Pakistan, India and China, and Pakistan and Afghanistan. Often overlooked but no less important is the Pakistan-Iran relationship, which involves 200 million people, nuclear weapons, and a series of interlocking military entanglements that include several of the region’s aspiring powers. Last week, the relationship between the two nations came to a head with the downing of an Iranian drone by the Pakistani Air Force in Balochistan.[1] The incursion, which was three to four kilometers within Pakistani airspace, was significant in its own right, but more importantly the strike highlights the deterioration of the Pakistan-Iran relationship.  

Recent attacks on Iranian troops from militants based in Balochistan have stalled Iran-Pakistan relations. The Iranian regime has even accused Pakistan of complicity in these attacks, although Pakistan vehemently denies these claims. In May, the insurgent activity culminated with the death of ten Iranian military personnel at the hands of the Balochistan-based insurgent group Jaish-al-Adl.[2] In recent years, a growing number of Sunni militants based in Pakistan-Balochistan have launched attacks over the border at Iranian forces, and Iran has threatened cross-border action.

In the past, Iran and Pakistan’s shared strategic interest of suppressing Baloch nationalism has created the conditions for cooperation[3].  In the 1970s, Pakistan put down a Baloch uprising with the help of Iranian intervention. Iran committed over 200 million dollars and helicopter pilots to crush the insurrection.[4] The joint approach to counterinsurgency was successful. This is unsurprising, because multilateral cooperation is crucial to counterterrorism; it allows allies to divide operations according to comparative advantage by doing what they are each best at, and creates networks of experts to solve problems that each state cannot fix on its own.[5]

More recently, a growing relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia has placed stress on cooperation with Iran. Saudi Arabia has long been considered one of Iran’s chief regional rivals. Not helping matters, Pakistan joined the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance, which notably excludes Iran.[6] Pakistan has grown closer to the Saudis in recent decades because of their shared majority Sunni populations, and has received billions of dollars in economic aid from them.[7] These developments have been noticed in Iran, as Iranian General Bareqi was quoted as blaming the recent Balochi attacks on “Saudi-hired terrorists,” implying the Pakistani government was collaborating with Saudi Arabia.[8] The Iranians also suspect that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are providing material support for the powerful Baloch separatist militia Jundallah.[9] Pakistan’s growing entanglement with Saudi Arabia makes future cooperation with Iran over Balochistan appear even less likely.

Pakistan has always stressed its sunny relations with other Muslim-majority nations. National rhetoric centers around Pakistan as a ‘fortress of Islam,’ and has consistently trumpeted its support for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Therefore, rivalries with India have been justified in defense of Islam, and national textbooks have painted the conflict as part of an enduring Hindu-Muslim conflict. Even tensions with Afghanistan, a Muslim majority nation, are justified under the frame of fighting Indian influence in the region.

Recent problems with Iran recast Pakistan’s role in the region from ideologue to typical realist power broker. Unwillingness to cooperate with Iran, a fellow Muslim nation, shows that the Pakistani central government prioritizes sectarianism and power projection over religious ideology. Instead, in order to contain aspiring regional rivals, political maneuvering is dictated by an expansionist security policy. Pakistan has been friendly with nations of different faiths and sects when it has suited them, and been hostile to religious compatriots when it has been in their interest Washing away Pakistan’s ideological discourse and replacing it with a logic of security is far more useful when unpacking the country’s motives and strategies. It is a mistake to attribute Pakistan’s actions to some unique ideological position rather than a simple, raw desire to maximize its regional power.

International relations scholar John Mearsheimer once famously wrote, “[the] ultimate aim [for any nation] is to gain a position of dominant power over others, because having dominant power is the best means to ensure one's own survival.”[10] This sentiment is echoed in Pakistan’s recent jostling with Iran. The Saudi-led military alliance that Pakistan is a part of excludes Iran – even though it is a Muslim nation – because the alliance is a part of a broader regional effort at containment. The unwillingness of the Pakistani military establishment to help Iran deal with the Baloch insurgency highlights the prioritization of political and security objectives over the state’s supposed pan-Islamic ideology.   

The recent conflict over the Iranian drone in Balochistan represents the latest development in the increasingly tense relationship between Iran and Pakistan in the region. Furthermore, the conflict underscores Pakistan’s regional military ambitions at the expense of ideological purity. Pakistan can no longer confidently claim to operate in the best interest in all of its Islamic neighbors, as it remains uncooperative with Iran regarding counterinsurgency. This spat is unlikely to be the last event in the escalation over Balochistan, and central Asia should brace itself for more tension along the Iran-Pakistan border in the near future.


[1] Siddiqui, Naveed. "Iranian Drone Shot down by PAF, Confirms FO." DAWN. N.p., 21 June 2017. Web. 22 June 2017.

[2] Aryan, Vikram. "Iran Threatens Pakistan, Says May Cross Border." Defense Updates. N.p., 09 May 2017. Web. 22 June 2017.

[3] Khan "South Asia | Pakistan Risks New Battlefront." Ibid

[4] Jugdep S. ChimaEthnic Subnationalist Insurgencies in South Asia: Identities, Interests and Challenges to State Authority Routledge, Mar 24, 2015

[5] Multilateral Counter-Terrorism: The global politics of cooperation and contestation Peter Romaniuk Routledge, Apr 5, 2010

[6] "Pakistan Caught in Middle of Saudi Arabia-Iran Conflict." Time. Time, 10 Jan. 2016. Web. 22 June 2017.

[7] Ibid

[8] "Pakistan Summons Iranian Envoy on General's Remarks." Financial Tribune. N.p., 10 May 2017. Web. 22 June 2017.

[9] Hardy, Roger. "Profile: Iran's Jundullah Militants." BBC News. BBC, 20 June 2010. Web. 22 June 2017.

[1] John Mearsheimer “Structural Realism” University of Chicago, July 2006