Iran’s recent military actions across the Middle East represent a significant escalation in regional tensions. The series of strikes began with targets in Erbil, Iraq, and parts of Syria, rapidly followed by a surprising attack on Pakistan within 24 hours. These operations demonstrate Tehran’s advanced missile and drone capabilities and signal its willingness to cause regional disruptions.
Tehran has rationalized its strikes as actions against perceived security threats. The Erbil strikes were claimed to be against Israeli espionage centres, while in Syria, Iran targeted sites linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
(ISIL). However, Tehran’s approach remains aggressive, as demonstrated by their attacks on the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq.
In response, the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies have launched Operation Poseidon Archer, a military campaign involving regular airstrikes against Houthi rebel positions to address the ongoing conflict and instability in the region.
The attack on Pakistan, however, represents a new level of escalation. Iran justified this strike by claiming to target the militant group Jaish al-Adl (JuA), which it accuses of operating from Pakistan. Pakistan’s response to this attack contrasts starkly with Iraq’s, given Pakistan’s military is significantly more capable than Iraq’s.
Iran’s military assertiveness occurs against the backdrop of these ongoing conflicts. Israel, a key regional rival of Iran, is locked in conflict with Hamas in Gaza, and international stability faces disturbances emanating from the Red Sea region due to activities by the Houthi rebels, who are aligned with Tehran.
On January 3, 2024, during a ceremony commemorating the elimination (“martyrdom”) of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) chief Qasem Soleimani at his grave in Kerman, Iran, two bomb explosions occurred, resulting in the tragic deaths of at least 94 people and injuring 284 others. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for this atrocity. In response, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, vowed a “harsh response” and stated that those responsible would face “repression and just punishment.” The United States had warned Iran of a potential ISIS-K attack, raising questions about Iran’s capacity or willingness to prevent such tragedies, especially considering it resulted in strategic posturing and implications.
In the aftermath, the Iranian Ministry of Interior took measures to enhance border security, ordering the construction of walls along its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, one of the suicide bombers was identified as a citizen of Tajikistan. On January 11, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence announced the identification of the attack’s mastermind as Abdollah Tajiki, a Tajikistani national. Tajiki reportedly entered Iran illegally through its southeastern border in December 2023, crafted the bombs for the attack, and left the country on January 1, 2024.
Iranian strikes in Iraq and Syria
On January 15th, Iranian strikes in the northern semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, specifically targeting the city of Erbil, resulted in the deaths of four civilians, including Iraqi Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dizayee, his daughter, their housekeeper, and businessman Karam Mikhail, while injuring 17 others. Tehran claimed the strike targeted an Israeli spy hub near the U.S. consulate, which was situated close to Dizayee’s residence – a claim disputed by Iraqi Kurdish officials who denied the presence of a Mossad base. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed responsibility for the attack, which involved 11 out of 15 missiles striking Erbil, launched from Kermanshah and West Azarbaijan provinces. These missiles were identified as Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missiles. Additionally, coalition forces intercepted three drones near Erbil International Airport, which was temporarily closed following the attack. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry condemned the strikes as violating international law and announced plans to file a complaint with the U.N. Security Council.
Tehran has also indulged in attacks, including suicide drones, ballistic missiles, and rocket strikes on the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq. These attacks have resulted in minor brain trauma to some U.S. military personnel and are part of over 100 attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. interests in Iraq, Syria, and off the coast of Yemen since October 7th.
In Syria, Iran conducted military strikes targeting what it claimed were Islamic State (ISIS) positions in the northern part of the country. These actions, while not directly related to Israel, demonstrate Iran’s readiness to engage in direct military operations in the region. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced that it had launched an attack against the perpetrators of the January 3, Kerman bombings, using four missiles. These missiles, identified as Kheibar Shekan medium-range ballistic missiles, were launched by the IRGC Aerospace Force from the Darkhoveyn District in Khuzestan province. They travelled approximately 1,200 kilometres to strike targets near Taltita in the Idlib Governorate. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has questioned the likelihood of Iran’s use of medium-range ballistic missiles for this operation, citing the limited scale of damage observed. The observatory suggests that the strikes were more likely conducted by Iranian-backed groups located in the Aleppo Governorate, around 30 kilometres from the impact zone.
Iranian strikes in Pakistan
On 16th January, an Iranian strike in Pakistan targeted the Balochistan region, specifically a village called Sabz Koh, located about 45 kilometres from the Iranian border and 90 kilometres from the nearest town, Panjgur. The strike occurred in a sparsely populated area inhabited by Baloch tribes and known for smuggling activities and appeared to be conducted by suicide drones.
Iran says its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has launched missile and drone attacks inside Pakistan against Sunni Baloch militant group Jaish Al-Adl – Tasnim https://t.co/HybvHaX33Z
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) January 16, 2024
Iran justified its actions by claiming that the strike targeted Jaish ul-Adl, a Baloch insurgent group involved in the Sistan and Baluchestan insurgency. The Iranian strike resulted in the deaths of two children and injuries to three others in the area. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, insisted that only members of Jaish al-Adl were targeted and that no Pakistani citizens were harmed.
Following the Iranian strikes, Jaish ul-Adl claimed the confirmed killing of an IRGC officer, in southeastern Iran, near the Pakistan border.
There were muted rumours the attack in Pakistan was ordered directly by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, which were intensified by the reported remarks of IRGC Aerospace commander Hajizadeh, who was responsible for missile strikes in several locations including Erbil, Idlib, and Pakistan. He was reportedly asked about the potential response from the enemy. In response, he stated, “Let them do any damned thing they want because there is no problem, and it is not important. We are prepared.”
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in response to Iran’s attack, condemning the unprovoked violation of Pakistan’s airspace and the deaths of two children and injuries to three girls. Pakistan warned of serious consequences. They expressed dismay that the incident occurred despite the presence of established communication channels. Pakistan formally registered its protest with Iran and summoned the Iranian Charge d’affaires to convey its condemnation.
In a precision operation codenamed “Marg Bar Sarmachar (death to insurgents),” the Pakistani military claimed to have targeted hideouts used by Baloch separatist terrorist organizations, including the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), on Iranian territory, employing a combination of suicide drones, rockets, loitering munitions, and standoff weapons.
Pakistan also utilized its JF-17 “Thunder” and J-10C “Vigorous Dragon” fighter aircraft, in conjunction with Wing Loong II armed drones, to carry out the surgical strikes.
The Pakistanis named the following terrorists as slain targets:
- Dosta (Chairman)
- Bajjar (Soghat)
- Sahil (Shafaq)
- Asghar (Basham)
- Wazir (Wazi)
Iranian Baloch outlet reported that the target of Pakistani airstrikes were houses of Asghar alias Basham and Dosta alias Chairman in Saravan, Iran.
Also: Asghar, a BLF commander, was among those injured; his sister & 2 children were killed. Dosta, a BNM member, was killed… pic.twitter.com/kIGRqbSw3K
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) January 22, 2024
The magnitude of Pakistan’s retaliation, which far exceeded its usual apathetic response to Iranian aggression, left Tehran both alarmed and surprised. Despite Pakistan’s substantial collective and technical military capacity over Iran, previous encounters had witnessed restraint from Islamabad.
Both parties mutually agreed to reinstate their respective ambassadors by January 26, 2024. Furthermore, the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian has accepted an invitation from Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani to visit Pakistan on January 29, 2024.
Despite this immediate rapprochement and the strong Pakistani military response, Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani made an aggressive statement saying, “We will not accept any threats from neighbouring countries against us.” He added, “We have already issued warnings, and if these warnings are not heeded, we will exercise our legitimate right to carry out necessary operations.”
Expect cross-border terrorism to continue
Meanwhile, in Pakistan on January 22nd, three prominent universities in Islamabad temporarily closed due to credible security concerns. The precautionary measure was taken in response to a potential terrorist attack threat involving a female suicide bomber. The universities affected were Quaid-e-Azam University, Air University, and National Defence University. These actions were part of increased security measures in the capital city, with intelligence pointing to a potential threat by a female suicide bomber associated with the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). Other nearby educational institutions were also instructed to suspend operations temporarily, prioritising the safety of students and staff.
Days after the military scuffles, the Pakistani Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) reported the arrest of an individual named Syed Mohammed Mehdi in Karachi. According to the CTD press release, the arrested individual is allegedly linked to the IRGC-trained/Iran-backed Zainabiyoun Brigade and was working for a “neighbouring country,” which is a hint towards Iran. He is also identified as a prime suspect in the 2019 armed attack on Pakistani Sunni cleric Mufti Taqi Usmani.
Since the Pakistani strikes, there have been targeted attacks against members of the anti-Iran Sunni Islamist group ASWJ (Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamāʿat). On January 23rd, another ASWJ member named Abdul Bari was killed, and his brother was injured in a gun attack in Karachi. This incident follows a similar pattern of violence, as on January 18th, Amjad Ali Farooqui, the spokesperson for ASWJ’s Peshawar chapter, was shot and injured by unidentified assailants in Peshawar, located in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. These incidents underscore the ongoing security challenges in Pakistan, particularly concerning sectarian tensions and extremist elements.
On January 22, 2024, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Zhob District’s Sambaza Sector, an exchange of fire occurred during an Intelligence Based Operation (IBO), resulting in the elimination of seven individuals who had been actively involved in terrorist activities. Arms, ammunition, and explosives were also recovered from the scene. Such operations will likely continue in Balochistan.
On January 23rd, in the strategically important city of Chabahar in Southeast Iran, a Police Station came under attack from what is likely to be Jaish-ul-Adl fighters.
On January 27th, a distressing event occurred when nine labourers from Punjab province, Pakistan, were killed in Sirkan city, located in the Bam Pasht district of Saravan County, Sistan and Baluchestan province, Iran. Reports suggest that these individuals were abducted from Pakistan and subsequently transported to Iran, where they were executed. The Pakistani ambassador to Tehran has confirmed the deaths of these nine Pakistani nationals. This incident has significantly influenced the coverage by Pakistani media, which has seen a notable shift in its portrayal of Iran, particularly in the context of recent retaliatory strikes by Pakistan against Iran. The change in media tone reflects the growing tensions and the grave nature of the incident.
The ‘Iran threat’ is no longer a taboo subject in Pakistan
In a revealing conversation with Midstone Centre, respected Pakistani journalist and analyst Ahmed Quraishi provided valuable insights into the shifting dynamics of discourse concerning Iranian policies within Pakistan. This subsection explores the transformation in media and think-tank discussions regarding Iran’s influence in Pakistan and the broader region while delving into the historical factors that have fostered self-censorship on this critical subject.
All the issues that Pakistani commentators couldn’t or wouldn’t discuss regarding Iranian meddling in Yemen in 2015, for example, are now openly being discussed after the IRGC attacked Pakistan.
Discussing the Iranian government’s malign influence within Pakistan and across the region was, and probably still is, a taboo in Pakistani media and think tanks. This has suddenly changed after the Iranian assault on Pakistan. However, we have to wait and see if this change is permanent or temporary.
There are two reasons for this self-censorship in Pakistan when it comes to any discussion of Iranian policy.
The first reason is sectarian confusion. A belief has developed in Pakistani society and policy circles that criticizing Iranian policy is blasphemous, anti-Shia, and equivalent to promoting sectarianism. According to this belief, Iran is viewed as a representative of a sect and not as a state whose policies are open to discussion. The IRGC’s influence operations inside Pakistan over the past three decades have reinforced this perception to censor and suppress any open Pakistani discussion on Iranian policies.
The second reason for this Pakistani self-censorship on Iran is religion. Many Pakistanis have come to regard the Khomeinist ruling elite in Iran as sacred because of the ‘Islamic Revolution’ and the religious dress code of the Khomeinists. In Pakistani pop culture, anything associated with religion automatically becomes sacred and immune to legitimate analysis and critique.
All of these reasons have contributed to the creation of a Pakistani taboo on critiquing Iranian policies, even when those policies have harmed Pakistan, such as the IRGC-sponsored Chabahar terror network or the Iranian partnership with India in Balochistan and Afghanistan to contain Pakistan, and the attempted destabilization of Gulf states, which would have adversely affected Pakistani economic and diplomatic interests.
Comments by Ahmed Quraishi
The United States denounced the Iranian airstrikes in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, expressing a desire for a peaceful resolution between the countries involved. The State Department criticized Iran for infringing on the sovereignty of its neighbouring nations in a short span. Additionally, it pointed out the inconsistency in Iran’s actions, citing its role as a significant supporter of terrorism and regional instability while justifying its military operations as counterterrorism measures.
Exiled Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi has issued a statement criticizing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s role in fostering terrorism and regional tensions. He highlights the deterioration of Iran’s relationship with Pakistan since the 1979 revolution and calls for an end to the current regime, emphasizing the need to restore Iran’s strength and establish peaceful relations with neighbours to bring stability to the region.
Following Pakistan’s retaliatory actions, China’s Foreign Ministry expressed its willingness to play a constructive role in diffusing tensions between Iran and Pakistan, while urging restraint. As a close ally to both nations, China’s involvement holds significance in the situation. On January 22nd, Mr. Sun Weidong, Vice Foreign Minister of China, met with Pakistan’s army chief General Asim Munir, during which they discussed mutual interests and measures to enhance bilateral defence cooperation.
During their discussion, a notable point of focus was the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is worth mentioning that China has consistently urged Pakistan to enhance the protection of Chinese investments within the CPEC framework, particularly in Balochistan, where there have been concerns about terrorism emanating from Iran-based elements. Interestingly, while China has stressed the importance of safeguarding its investments, it has refrained from openly condemning Iranian sponsorship of terrorism against Pakistan, which has consistently harmed these very investments. There has been a discernible shift in China’s investment interests towards Iran in recent times, despite renewed discussions about upscaling CPEC.
Saudi Arabia welcomed the recent agreement between the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran to de-escalate tensions and restore diplomatic relations. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has witnessed a gradual deterioration since the Yemen crisis in 2015 when Pakistan’s refusal to engage militarily in Yemen marked a significant turning point. Riyadh began to question Pakistan’s reliability as an ally in countering Iranian influence in the region. These ties faced further strains during the tenure of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, from 2018 to 2021. Riyadh’s struggle to achieve a decisive victory over the Houthi rebels in Yemen, coupled with persistent concerns about Iranian geopolitical endeavours, led Saudi Arabia to explore the possibility of a rapprochement with Tehran. However, many analysts view this policy shift as a pragmatic move by Riyadh—one that may provide temporary respite but is unlikely to deliver lasting stability, particularly in the absence of a significant change, such as American intervention against Iran.
While Khan’s actions strained Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, he maintained popularity in Tehran during his dispute with the Pakistani military, seemingly endorsing the potential for violent upheavals akin to the Iranian revolution. In 2019, former Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly acknowledged terrorists using Pakistani territory for attacks on Iran during his visit. Khan also reportedly criticized Pakistan’s retaliatory airstrikes in Iran, alleging that these actions were taken to placate parties intent on sabotaging Iran-Pakistan relations, though Khan’s party put out a statement in support of the Pakistani military operations.
Turkiye issued a measured response to the recent Iranian attacks in Iraq and Pakistan, prioritizing the preservation of its bilateral relations with Tehran amid escalating regional tensions. Despite its customary stance of expressing positions in regional conflicts, Turkiye initially refrained from commenting on the Iranian attacks. However, following Pakistan’s retaliatory strikes in Iran, Turkiye issued a carefully worded statement, refraining from assigning blame and instead urging Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan to exercise restraint and common sense in the ongoing situation.
Pakistan’s Iran-Afghanistan problem
Pakistan’s dynamics with both Iran and Afghanistan are so severe that they can be considered near-existential issues. However, the more immediate and critical threat emanates from the Afghan Taliban and their proxies in Pakistan. Which is why Pakistan may be more willing to quickly de-escalate with Iran.
In response to the Iran-Pakistan clashes, The Taliban expressed concern, calling for restraint. However, it is worth noting that the Taliban have not shown restraint in their actions towards Pakistan, as they are still actively engaged in aggressive activities against Pakistani forces, and still do not accept Pakistan’s internationally recognised borders. Recent reports indicate a heavy exchange of fire, including artillery, along the Bajaur-Kunar border between Afghan Taliban and Pakistani border forces. According to Pakistani sources, the Taliban initiated the conflict when Pakistani soldiers were repairing the border fence on the Pakistani side.
Amid recent tensions, it is noteworthy that Iran, a Shia-majority country, and the Sunni-led Taliban have engaged in discussions regarding counterterrorism efforts and addressing takfiri groups, which are extremist factions targeting those who do not adhere to their specific interpretation of Islam. Additionally, both parties have explored the formation of a joint judicial committee aimed at sharing Iran’s judicial experiences with Afghanistan and the possibility of extraditing prisoners.
Iran perceives the susceptibility of Pakistanis, driven by their deep-rooted commitment to Islamist ideologies such as the political ummah concept and anti-Israel sentiment, as pivotal recruitment drivers for Iranian terror proxies. Iranian state-linked outlet Tasnim reported that at least four Pakistani nationals affiliated with Iranian terror proxy Zainbyoun were killed in Syria in November.
#Iran-linked groups are under pressure to create unrest in #Pakistan in the name of #Hamas/#Gaza after other #IRGC-linked groups in #Iraq+#Syria have gone into hiding. These groups think Pakistan is a soft spot for militant propaganda when they can't operate elsewhere. #Malaysia…
— Ahmed Quraishi (@_AhmedQuraishi) November 10, 2023
Later that month, the Pakistani Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) announced the arrest of two Shiite militants associated with the Zainabiyoun Brigade in Karachi. These individuals, including a former police officer, had received training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria. While the official press release from the CTD did not explicitly name Iran, corroborating sources affirm the IRGC’s involvement in their training. The arrested militants had reportedly engaged in lethal activities on behalf of Iran during their time in Syria, and disturbingly, they were allegedly receiving financial support for operations in Pakistan, believed to originate from a foreign country, likely Iran or Syria. The CTD’s findings also unveiled a plot by the militants to target Sunni leaders, an influential unidentified figure, and foreign nationals within Pakistan. Disturbingly, surveillance on several Sunni leaders had already been completed by the apprehended militants. The CTD also seized a cache of weapons and ammunition.
In July 2023, a series of clashes unfolded in the Kurram District of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, near the Pak-Afghan border. Sunni fighters, supported by the Taliban, clashed with Iranian-backed Shia forces. The violence led to 13 fatalities and 74 injuries. However, in October, such clashes were still happening in Kurram, where Iran-backed Shia militants clashed with Afghan Taliban-linked Sunni militants. At least a dozen were killed, and several more were injured. Similar clashes are likely to occur.
These clashes and the perpetual strife in Pakistan’s frontier regions only strengthen the capacity of the Iranian regime and the Afghan Taliban and its proxies, who become seen as protectors or liberators to groom disgruntled recruits. It also negatively impacts the reputation of the Pakistani security apparatus, which becomes seen as uncaring when apathetic, or hostile when interventionist, which impairs their capacity to cooperate with the locals.
This negative sentiment among Pakistani Pashtuns is further exacerbated by recent developments, including the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his prevention from participating in elections, the detainment of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement ultranationalist party members, and the deportation of Afghan refugees. These actions appear to be part of a broader state-level Afghanistan policy, suggesting a potential for more decisive actions both internally and externally.
In November, both Iran and Pakistan initiated mass deportations of Afghan refugees. Notably, the Taliban’s strong criticism is primarily directed at Pakistan, with active lobbying efforts targeting Western dignitaries on this issue. In contrast, their critique of Iran remains relatively subdued. Meanwhile, in Iran, anti-Afghan sentiment has surged, exemplified by an angry mob setting fire to houses of Afghan refugees in Meybod city, Yazd province. Despite Iran announcing more extensive deportations than Pakistan and displaying harsher treatment toward Afghan refugees, the Taliban’s more aggressive stance against Pakistan becomes evident through their targeted lobbying efforts and vocal criticism.
Similarly, there has been notable recent attention to the plight of Baloch in Pakistan’s other frontier of Balochistan. The emergence of activist Mehrang Baloch, who has been a prominent advocate for the release of ‘missing people’ in Balochistan, has brought Baloch separatist sentiment into sharper focus, alongside her dismissal by the Pakistani state. Mahrang has also met with the parents of a prominent arrested PTM leader, demonstrating the mutual grievances of Pakistan’s Baloch and tribal Pasthuns. Prominent Pakistani human rights activists have also raised their voices for both groups, notably including the daughter of Shireen Mazari, who was the Minister of Human Rights for ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government.
In a statement, Iranian Sunni Baloch cleric Maulana Abdul Ghaffar Naqshbandi called on Pakistan to focus its efforts on targeting the terrorist IRGC, which is believed to be the root cause of the conflict, rather than harming the Baloch people. He stressed that many Iranians desire the removal of the IRGC and urged Pakistan not to inadvertently harm the Baloch community in its actions against the IRGC.
While Iran and the Taliban grapple with their own set of issues, notably concerning water and competition within Pakistan, a fundamental convergence stems from their shared interest in isolating Pakistan from international integration and undermining the nation’s stability.
Tehran is actively seeking to establish a geoeconomic connection with China through Afghanistan, a development that has left Pakistan feeling sidelined. Notably, the Taliban welcomed China’s new ambassador to Afghanistan, Zhao Sheng, as a significant step, marking the first time since the Taliban takeover in 2021 that an ambassador to Kabul has been afforded such protocol.
Pakistan once viewed Afghanistan as a potential geo-economic connection to Central Asia. They placed all their eggs in the Taliban basket to achieve connectivity, believing the Taliban would provide this as opposed to a US-backed regime. This has backfired spectacularly, as Iran seems likely to benefit from trans-Afghan connectivity, while Pakistan faces geopolitical isolation, and terrorism from the Taliban, Iran and their proxies.
Iran in the Middle East
Iranian proxies have operated largely unchecked in the Middle East for an extended period. Iran effectively controls key actors in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, and it is likely to continue utilizing these proxies in various ways. While previous Iranian missile and drone strikes have targeted U.S. military facilities in the Middle East, the recent direct Iranian strikes in the Middle East and Pakistan can be seen as a shift in strategy given the timing and nature of them. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has emphasized that escalation is not in the interest of any party. It appears that these Iranian strikes, coupled with heightened Houthi activity in a crucial chokepoint in the Red Sea, aim to exert pressure on Washington to influence Israel to cease its operations in Gaza against one of Iran’s proxies.
While direct military action against Iran remains a point of reluctance, the United States and its allies are increasingly willing to target Iranian proxies, such as the Houthi rebels in the Red Sea region, to safeguard their interests and address the growing challenges posed by Iran’s influence in the area. This approach allows them to maintain a degree of deterrence and protect their strategic concerns without escalating tensions directly with Iran. Additionally, the United States should aim to maintain its role as a security guarantor, especially considering that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Tehran would prefer to keep both its proxies and its nuclear program, with a preference for acquiring nuclear weapons over protecting its proxies. However, Tehran perceives a mutual relationship between these elements. While Tehran aims to deter operations against its proxies, such as the Houthis and Hamas, by coordinating their activities, they also seem to use this strategy to deter any military operations targeting Iran directly, especially its nuclear program. Nevertheless, the acquisition of Iranian nuclear weapons could grant Iran significant power, potentially allowing them to utilize these proxy groups in the region to advance their agendas and influence global shipping lanes and regional countries.
Deterring Iran indeed necessitates imposing direct consequences, as Tehran has a pool of potential recruits in countries like Yemen, yet it has not faced such direct consequences. Since the Hamas massacre, the US military has endured more than 58 attacks in Iraq and 83 in Syria carried out by Iran-backed Shiite militias.
On January 10th, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani called for a swift and orderly exit of U.S.-led forces. However, current discussions about the U.S. military presence in Iraq may place Erbil in even greater importance in the anti-ISIS campaign.
While countries like Iraq are unable to mount a military response to Iranian military aggression, and Israel has historically refrained from direct military confrontations, Pakistan’s recent response has exposed Iran’s military vulnerability when facing more powerful conventional military forces. This revelation carries particular significance for Israel, considering the existential threat posed by Iran’s proxies and its nuclear program.
Notably, the Pakistani retaliation was discussed extensively in Israeli media, including in a Times of Israel report, highlighting how it demonstrated Iran’s vulnerabilities to a military response. Israel’s Economy Minister, Nir Barkat, a favoured successor to Benjamin Netanyahu within Likud, stated in an interview with The Telegraph that “Iran is a legitimate target for Israel” and emphasized the need for Israel to unequivocally convey to Iran that they will not tolerate the use of proxies against Israel. However, Israel is increasingly likely to engage militarily with Hezbollah in Lebanon before confronting Iran more directly.
Pakistan’s retaliation confirmed what was already known – Pakistan’s military capabilities far exceed those of Iran.
However, meaningful change would require specific policy measures. This will become easier for Pakistan, as the Pakistani retaliation, rather than the Iranian strike, brought necessary and long absent public and media attention to Iran’s hostility. For militarily powerful Pakistan, it is far easier to conduct tangible military operations than to fight the abstract nature of Iran’s malign influence.
This direct response to Iranian military aggression underscores Pakistan’s newfound commitment to safeguarding its territorial sovereignty. It is particularly vital during a period when the Pakistani military may be facing declining public support. The key is to ensure that this response goes beyond mere face-saving, addressing the genuine security concerns at hand.
Pakistan officially cited these attacks as a response to Iranian support for Baloch separatist terrorism, a concern that had persisted despite Pakistan’s repeated appeals for intervention. However, Pakistan only took action against these terrorist groups when Iran directly attacked Pakistani territory. This suggests that Pakistan is willing to target Baloch separatist terror groups in Iran, but only in response to Iranian military aggression, rather than taking preemptive measures.
To truly emphasize that acts of terrorism facilitated by or originating in Iran against Pakistan will lead to military repercussions, Pakistan would need to independently target terrorist entities without waiting for Iranian aggression. An alternative response could have been to directly target the IRGC or military units involved in the Iranian aggression. However, Pakistan likely refrained from such actions to avoid direct confrontation with Iran, particularly during a period when Pakistan is dealing with a serious terrorism issue stemming from Afghanistan.
By targeting terrorists in Iran rather than the military units responsible for Iranian aggression within Pakistan’s borders (where Iran claimed to be targeting terrorists), Pakistan is essentially underscoring the cross-border nature of terrorism in Balochistan. This approach might be interpreted by some as Pakistan’s reluctance to address terrorism within its own territory – a longstanding criticism directed at Pakistan by the international community, which the Iranians would certainly want to highlight.
However, as Pakistan potentially reevaluates its stance on Iranian aggression, it’s essential to acknowledge that the immediate, critical, and possibly existential threat originates from the Afghan Taliban and their proxies within Pakistan. This situation calls for a more assertive approach in dealing with the threats posed by both rogue regimes in Afghanistan and Iran than Pakistan has historically pursued. As Pakistan faces ideological and ethnic challenges from both regimes, its military superiority remains crucial in reclaiming control over its security.
While further military action inside Pakistan should not be ruled out, it is likely Tehran will refrain from any direct military confrontation with Pakistan again despite bluster from Iranian leaders. However, Iran will not only persist in covertly undermining Pakistan but will ramp up its efforts. As dramatic military events easily garner public attention, the subversive tactics Iran will likely revert to do not have such sway. This is why it is important to consistently maintain clarity on Iranian links to any terrorism that occurs in Pakistan.
A swift return to “brotherly relations” rhetoric by Pakistan in official statements with Iran after conducting military operations may strengthen Tehran’s perception that, despite Pakistan’s military superiority and potential collaboration with Iranian rivals, Pakistan could still be influenced by extremist beliefs in its foreign policy, which are extensively encouraged by Tehran. It might also suggest that Pakistan fears Tehran’s ability to retaliate covertly in response to any Pakistani military action. Such a belief is perilous as it implies Pakistan should dread potential Iranian covert retaliation even in response to legitimate Pakistani actions on Iranian soil, even though Iran is already consistently indulging in malign actions that have been causing significant harm to Pakistan without apparent consequences for decades.
However, on January 24th, during a session with students from public and private sector universities nationwide, the Pakistani military chief General Asim Munir took the opportunity to discuss Pakistan’s relations with Iran, particularly highlighting the recent missile attacks by Tehran within Balochistan. He emphatically asserted, “You cannot backstab us, and if you attempt to do so, you will face a suitable response.” The use of “backstab” is a suitable reflection on how Pakistan has been made to put up with Tehran’s aggression based on a misguided brotherhood belief. While this is an important step, it must be recognised that the Pakistani army chief also said that insurgency in Balochistan has long been supported by whoever governs Afghanistan, which, given the scale of Iran’s terror-sponsoring in Balochistan, obfuscates the major source of Pakistan’s woes. However, it could also signify that the Pakistani military sees Afghanistan as the immediate, pressing concern.
Detaching from the idea of a friendly Iran, especially within a Pakistan influenced by religious extremism centred around Islamic brotherhood, or the ummah presents a significant challenge. This attachment to the ummah is deeply engrained, and also significantly contributed to Pakistan’s past failed Afghan policy, resulting in a resurgence of terrorism within Pakistan. To enact meaningful changes in Pakistani policy, there must be a willingness to openly identify both Iran and Afghanistan when condemning terrorism or security threats, rather than using vague terms like “neighbouring country.” While there seems to be an immediate crackdown on Iranian-linked proxies in Pakistan, maintaining this as a central policy in Pakistan’s strategy for countering Iran’s aggression is essential. Counter-extremism efforts should also include disavowing narratives that promote sympathy for Islamist policies or groups, such as the IRGC or the Taliban.
In addition to countering Iranian narratives, cracking down on Tehran-linked terror and loyalist groups in Pakistan and the unlikely prospect of conducting preemptive operations against terror bases on the Iranian side of Balochistan, Pakistan has other responsible actions it could undertake.
Pakistan maintains robust relations with several countries that also view Iran as a security threat. Key security partners for Pakistan include Turkiye and Azerbaijan, both of which share borders with Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, located across the Gulf from Iran. Pakistan will likely seek to engage with these partners more extensively.
Earlier this month, it was announced that Turkiye, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia entered into an agreement aimed at bolstering trilateral defence cooperation. The three countries will convene for their next meeting during the upcoming World Defence Show scheduled to take place in Riyadh next month. Additionally, on January 21st, a preplanned joint military exercise involving the Pakistan Army and the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) took place at the Okara Garrison under the Multan Corps. This exercise highlighted the past collaboration and joint training efforts between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the defence sector which are likely to be reinvigorated.
However, Saudi Arabia, just like Turkey or Pakistan, is unwilling to escalate direct military confrontation with Iran. Recently, the Pakistani navy ship PNS Tughril had been strategically deployed in the Gulf of Aden to protect merchant ships affected by Tehran’s Houthi proxy, which underscores the multifaceted threat Iran poses to Pakistan’s broader interests, which are shared with much of the international community.
The varied responses to Iranian aggression in the Middle East highlight both the perceived strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s geopolitical strategy. These responses, as demonstrated by different countries, shed light on how Iran is viewed and countered on the regional and global stage.
Iran’s ability to exert influence through proxies in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, along with its involvement in Gaza, showcases its strategic depth in the region. This proxy approach allows Iran to project power and create a buffer against direct confrontation. Iran’s recent direct strikes and heightened activities of proxies like the Houthi rebels underscore its willingness to assert itself more aggressively, further indicating its perceived strength.
The varied responses from regional powers also expose Iran’s vulnerabilities. Pakistan’s military retaliation, for instance, revealed Iran’s susceptibility to conventional military forces. This direct action by Pakistan, a country that does not recognize Israel, could potentially embolden Israel’s stance towards Iran, opening up the idea that Iran can be targeted more directly than previously considered.
While Pakistan has demonstrated its military capability, its approach towards Iran is likely to be more nuanced. Given its significant concerns with Afghanistan, Pakistan may prioritize addressing issues related to the Afghan Taliban over direct confrontations with Iran, opting for less direct and more strategic means of countering Iranian aggression.
On the other hand, Israel and the United States, along with their allies, are growing increasingly concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. This concern is paramount, as it poses a potential threat far beyond the region’s conventional military skirmishes and proxy wars. The recent developments may be pushing these nations towards a more assertive stance against Iran, especially in the context of its nuclear ambitions.
The situation seems to be approaching a critical juncture where the Iranian nuclear issue could escalate in more dramatic and potentially undesirable ways. The international community, particularly Israel and the U.S., might find themselves compelled to take more decisive actions, given the growing unease over Iran’s nuclear trajectory.
In conclusion, the diverse responses to Iranian aggression – from Pakistan’s military retaliation to Israel and the U.S.’s heightened concerns over nuclear developments – reflect a complex tapestry of perceived strengths and vulnerabilities in Iran’s regional strategy. While Pakistan might opt for a more subdued and strategic approach, focusing on internal and Afghan-related issues, Israel and the U.S. are likely to confront the Iranian threat more directly, especially concerning the nuclear program. This evolving dynamic indicates a potentially volatile future, where the Iranian issue could escalate beyond current expectations.