QUETTA -- Iran's continuing recruitment of Pakistani Shia into the proxy militias of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) constitutes a violation of Pakistan's national sovereignty meant only to satisfy Tehran's geo-political ambitions, sources tell Pakistan Forward.
Reports suggest that up to 12,000 Pakistani and Afghan Shia have been recruited into the IRGC's Zainabiyoun Brigade and Fatemiyoun Division to fight in Syria, other hotspots in the Middle East and beyond.
"Iran is fueling sectarianism in our region for its own strategic interests," said Maj. (ret.) Muhammad Omar, an Islamabad-based defence analyst.
Iran is using concepts like "Shia rights and protection" to recruit Pakistanis, he told Pakistan Forward. In reality, however, it is manipulating Pakistanis to serve the geo-political strategy of the IRGC.
Pakistanis fighting in Syria for Iranian causes are damaging Pakistan's image, he said.
"Because of Pakistani Shia fighters' war crimes in Syria, the international community is blaming Pakistan for its involvement in the Syrian war," he said.
More needs to be done to monitor the thousands of Pakistani pilgrims who enter Iran and never come back, Omar said.
"For the good of Pakistan, it is time that the security establishment take this matter more seriously with some concrete steps to foil Iranian influence," he said.
"Iran has its own strategy to inflame sectarian strife [in the region]," a senior counter-terrorism official with the Pakistani Defence Ministry told Pakistan Forward on condition of anonymity.
"The IRGC mostly uses Shia clerics who have close ties to Iran and some of whom have also studied in the seminaries of Qom and Mashhad," he said, referring to two of Iran's principal pilgrimage sites.
The most fertile recruitment areas for Iran in Pakistan are Parachinar, southern parts of Punjab, Karachi, Quetta and parts of Balochistan that border Afghanistan, he said.
Pakistani Shia sign up to fight with the IRGC for multiple reasons, but many are manipulated by clerics who say fighting alongside the IRGC will help protect holy sites in Syria, he said.
Extremist organisations, like the ones backed by Iran, "are cashing in on the underlying circumstances" of the people, said Allama Akbar Hussain Zahidi, president of the Shia Ulema Council in Balochistan.
In addition to sectarian arguments fomented by Iran-backed clerics, he said, "another main reason young militants are attracted to the Syrian war is money", which the militias promise Pakistanis before sending them to the front.
"Our youngsters are losing their lives for foreign designs," Zahidi told Pakistan Forward. "This war serves only the political ambitions of Iran."
Iran 'exporting revolution' in Pakistan
"A number of Iranian officials are working undercover [in Pakistan] to advance their agenda and provide financial and logistical support to groups involved in the recruitment of Shia fighters," said Usman Abid, a senior Pakistani counter-intelligence official based in Quetta.
"We are working diligently to counter foreign influence on our soil and will never allow any country to use our land for any cause," he told Pakistan Forward.
Earlier in February "a senior Iranian diplomat posted at the Iranian consulate in Quetta was arrested alongside five other IRGC-linked suspects in Quetta", Abid added.
Investigations of the suspects "revealed very important and classified information about their network. Our forces are hopeful that other members of that network will be soon under arrest," he said.
"We also suspect that a number of foreign cultural centres are undermining the integrity of Pakistan and covertly recruiting Shia fighters," Abid said.
"We want Iran to stop trying to export revolution to our region," he said.
Iranian proxies in Quetta "are misleading our youth ... and are using them in armed conflicts in Syria and other parts of the world", said Liaqat Ali Hazara, a Hazara tribal leader in the city and owner of the Ameer International transportation company.
"Iran-linked proxies are playing a murky game in Pakistan for their nefarious designs," he told Pakistan Forward, adding that sectarianism fomented by these groups is putting residents of Balochistan at great risk.
"Any participation by Shia militants in the Syrian war will never improve the security of our community in the country," he said.
"We must discourage those elements who are trying to use our nation for personal gains," Hazara said, adding that authorities must take action against elements that undermine the country's sovereignty.
Rashid Ahmed, a specialist on Afghan security affairs who teaches at the National Defence University in Islamabad, agreed.
"Pakistan is already a victim of terrorism, and we have lost thousands of lives in the war against terror," he told Pakistan Forward. "The state must take strict action against those groups involved in anti-peace activities."