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Will Downing of Tehran Drone Hurt Pakistan-Iran Relations Further?

Pakistan’s claim this week that it shot down an Iranian drone that had crossed into its airspace is heating up tensions already on the rise over cross-border skirmishes and diplomatic rifts over alleged militancy, analysts say.

“This is an unfortunate situation as it will only increase the mistrust which already exists between Pakistan and Iran,” Zubair Iqbal, an analyst at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told VOA.

Both sides of the porous 900-kilometer (560-mile) Pakistan-Iran border have long been rife with drug smugglers, separatists and militant movements. The drone apparently went down Tuesday in violence-racked Balochistan, Pakistan’s southwestern province, where insurgents and nationalists are active in launching attacks against government interests and neighboring countries.

“The drone was hit by the Pakistan Air Force as it was unidentified and flying around 3-4 kilometers inside Pakistani territory,” Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

No comment from Tehran

The Iranian government remained quiet about the incident, although some Iranian media outlets have quoted Pakistani newspapers on the drone claim.

An anti-Iran Sunni Muslim militant group — Jaish al-Adl, or the Army of Justice — claimed responsibility for an attack in Iran last month that killed 10 Iranian border guards.

Iran responded by warning Pakistan it would hit militant hideouts inside the fellow Muslim country if it failed to curb militancy. Consequently, Iran and Pakistan formed a joint commission in May to secure borders and control militancy.

Balochistan province, Pakistan
Balochistan province, Pakistan

Iran also beefed up security measures along the boundary with Pakistan and frequently has used drones to monitor the region since the attack.

The “IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] Air and Space force has been using the early-generation drones to track drug traffickers and militant groups such as Jaish al-Adl on the eastern borders with Pakistan,” Babak Taghvaee, a military expert based in Malta, told VOA.

Iqbal suggested the drone might have entered Pakistan by “mistake” because “there’s a tension in the region, and all the countries are trying to enhance their intelligence capabilities.”

Iran-India ties

Geopolitical developments in the region also have strained relations.

Iran’s robust ties with India make Pakistan uncomfortable. Islamabad accuses Iran of allowing its soil to be used by Indian spy agency RAW to sponsor, recruit and arm separatists and insurgents in Balochistan and infiltrate Pakistan with Indian spies via the border with Iran.

Iran seems exasperated about Jaish al-Adl’s alleged hideouts in Balochistan and about Pakistan’s alleged role in promoting Sunni-Shi’ite proxy wars in the region.

The diplomatic rift seemed to widen further after Pakistan accepted a role in the 39-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism initiated by Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. Pakistan’s former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, was named to lead the alliance, which Iran sees as a move against it.

While Pakistan has tried to remain neutral in the recent dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and even ventured into an unsuccessful effort to negotiate a settlement, the country is seen to be leaning toward Riyadh. Security analysts point out that Pakistan didn’t hesitate to gun down the Iranian drone.

“Pakistan never seemed to have any issues with Iranian drones [in the past]. Gunning down an Iranian drone might be an effort to prove loyalty to Riyadh,” Taghvaee said.

This story was originally posted on VOA News (Extremism Watch Desk).

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