The interesting timing of Pakistan’s Zainebiyoun designation amid Iran-Israel standoff

Omar Ahmed

Following a decision in late March to ban the Liwa Zainebiyoun, a brigade predominantly composed of Pakistani Shia fighters trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Pakistan formally announced that it had designated the group as a terrorist organisation.

According to a public notification made by the Ministry of Interior on 11 April “the Zainebiyoun Brigade is involved in activities that are deemed detrimental to the peace and security of the country.”

In doing so, Islamabad follows the US, which in January 2019, added the group to its financial blacklist, stating that it provides “materiel support” to the IRGC, which itself is deemed a terrorist organisation by Washington.

The initial banning of the Zainebiyoun came after heightened tensions between Tehran and Islamabad in January over cross-border strikes against Baloch separatists in both countries.

However, this designation comes at a critical time when Iran is actively mobilising factions within the Axis of Resistance against the US-backed Israeli military in light of the genocide in Gaza and expanding regional conflict, which has since seen the Islamic Republic and the occupation state engage in direct attacks against one another.

Named after Sayyida Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Zainebiyoun’s roots can be traced back to the Syrian civil war, where it was formed to support the Syrian government and protect the Shia shrines from extremists, under the guidance and support of the IRGC. Similar to the Fatimeyoun, which is composed of Afghan fighters, the Zainebiyoun is made up of Pakistani volunteers, and forms part of the Axis of Resistance, with mobilisation beyond the Middle East.

The timing is certainly interesting, especially as it was announced a mere two days before Iran’s Truthful Promise operation, in response to Israel’s air strikes on its consulate in Damascus. Even prior to this, Iran’s strategy of supporting the Axis of Resistance was already gaining momentum with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansarallah in Yemen, and the Islamic Resistance of Iraq who in addition to launching drone operations against Israel, have been targeting US bases in both Iraq and Syria.

In support and solidarity with Gaza, Hezbollah has intensified its operations against Israel, while Tel Aviv has ramped up aggression against south Lebanon. Similarly, Ansarallah-aligned forces in Yemen have stepped up naval operations against Israel-linked ships in the Red Sea and as far as the Indian Ocean.

Ultimately, this coalition represents a significant counterbalance to Israeli and US interests in the region – specifically that of the push for Arab normalisation with Tel Aviv. But the potential involvement of the Zainebiyoun is effectively being curtailed with Pakistan’s designation.

Quoting an anonymous senior Pakistani official the Media Line reported that “in the context of ongoing terror incidents in the country, Islamabad believes that the potential return of these fighters might exacerbate religious civil unrest in certain restive regions of the country. Given this concern, they advocate for measures to restrict the activities of this group.”

This official added: “Pakistani and American intelligence agencies have collaborated closely to address this threat, aiming to uphold peace and security in the region.”

“The decision to label the Zainebiyoun Brigade as a terrorist organization underscores Pakistan’s commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms.”

The move is unsurprising, given the powerful and politically influential Pakistani military’s Western alignment. Despite Pakistan’s consistently voicing its opposition to Israel and Zionism, the designation of the Zainebiyoun, which has no recorded acts of aggression against Pakistani state interests, suggests this was done to balance Pakistan’s international relations.

By distancing itself from an Iranian-backed armed movement, Pakistan firmly positions alongside Gulf Arab states and the West, which view Iran’s regional influence with suspicion and hostility. This move could be interpreted as an alignment with Saudi Arabia (which has considerable leverage over Pakistan due to financial support) and other Sunni-majority Gulf countries, opposed to Iran and the Resistance Axis.

As Pakistani newspaper Dawn notes, the development is “Seen by observers as a move by Islamabad to appease Washington, while others speculate this was done to win favour with Riyadh, whose foreign minister visited Pakistan recently.”

Moreover, this move could potentially alienate the sizeable Shia population in Pakistan, who may view this as having sectarian motives or down to submission to external pressures. Historically, Pakistan’s Shia communities have been the target of sectarian violence, while Zainebiyoun holds the potential to serve as protectors of these marginalised communities, if the state is unwilling or unable to.

Ironically, though, the designation poses its own risks, particularly in terms of internal security and sectarian harmony. Sectarian hardliners could become emboldened thus undermining the national security that this designation aims to bolster.

While the announcement of Zainebiyoun being added to Pakistan’s list of terrorist organisations days ahead of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s recent visit to the country has been interpreted by some as “aimed at building pressure on Iran to stop its sectarian proxy war in Pakistan,” the trip itself challenges the notion of “tensions” between the “brotherly” neighbours.
On Tuesday, coinciding with Raisi’s visit, during which eight memoranda of understanding were signed and commitments were made to boost bilateral trade to $10 billion, the US reiterated its threats to sanction Pakistan.

The next day, wrapping up the three-day visit, both sides agreed to “expeditiously finalise the FTA [Free Trade Agreement] and hold the next sessions of annual Bilateral Political Consultations (BPC) and Joint Business Trade Committee (JBTC) as well as the 22nd round of the negotiations of the Joint Economic Commission (JEC) in the near future.”

The joint statement also touched on the war on Gaza, stating that both countries “expressed their strong and unequivocal condemnation of the ongoing Israeli regime’s aggression and atrocities against the Palestinian people.” They called for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire as well as “ensuring accountability of the crimes being committed by the Israeli regime.”

The timing may raise suspicions and suggest Islamabad’s efforts to appease the West and its Arab allies, but it also indicates that tensions with Iran might be overstated.

While designating Zainebiyoun as a terrorist organisation poses a challenge for the Resistance Axis in terms of mobilisation, it doesn’t conclusively prove that Pakistan is working against Iran; rather, it seems to be an attempt to balance its international relations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.