We think of the Sunni-Shia “border” as the one between Iran and its Arab neighbors to its west. But there’s another: the one between Iran and Pakistan, the mainly Sunni state to its east.
Two episodes in the volatile area in early April left eight Iranian border guards and three militants dead.
The border guards were killed in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan Province. A Sunni extremist group, Jaish ul-Adl (Army of Justice), claimed responsibility for the attack. They have been carrying out a program of harassment, including derailing trains and conducting assassinations.
Sistan-Baluchestan Province is one of the 31 provinces of Iran, in the southeast of the country, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. A significant segment of the province’s population, the Baluch, are Sunni Muslims, who have historically suffered from discrimination.
Iran has accused Sunni militants based in Pakistan of previous attacks by militant groups. In 2013, three members of the country’s Revolutionary Guards were killed by a bomb blast. Jaish ul-Adl said it also carried out that attack.
Pakistan in turn has protested Iranian incursions into Pakistani territory at least twice last year, and has complained about mortar attacks by Iranian forces.
Unlike Iran, Pakistan is already a nuclear-armed state, and is being increasingly drawn into the Middle East’s conflicts. Saudi Arabia wants Sunni-majority Pakistan to join its coalition fighting the Shia Houthis in Yemen and has requested ships, aircraft and troops.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, visited Islamabad to urge Pakistan to reject the request. Pakistan’s own Shia Muslim minority, who comprise upwards of one-quarter of the country’s 200 million people, fears any intervention in Yemen would fuel more anti-Shia violence at home.
Since 2008, Pakistan’s Shia community has been the target of an unprecedented escalation in sectarian violence as Sunni militants have killed thousands of Shia across the country.
The al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Army of Jhangvi), one of many groups organized in reaction to the Shia theocracy in Iran, has taken responsibility for most of the attacks, especially against the mostly Shia Hazara community in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province. The capital, Quetta, has been the site of many atrocities.
Iran and Pakistan definitely remain wary of each other.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.