Will Pakistan retaliate heavily against Iran air attacks?

Iran's airstrikes in Pakistani territory escalate tensions, prompting diplomatic fallout, military responses, and potential realignments with global players, revealing a complex geopolitical landscape.

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The flag of Iran is seen over its consulate building, with Pakistan's flag in the foreground, after the Pakistani foreign ministry said the country conducted strikes inside Iran targeting separatist militants, two days after Tehran said it attacked Israel-linked militant bases inside Pakistani territory, in Karachi, Pakistan January 18, 2024. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Iran’s airstrikes within Pakistani territory, specifically in the southwestern province of Balochistan, have the potential to embroil Islamabad in a wider regional conflict, a concern voiced less than a month before national elections. The air raids, targeting the armed group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) as claimed by Iran, resulted in the tragic death of at least two children and injuries to three others.

Pakistan said on Thursday that it had carried out strikes inside Iran. The Pakistani Foreign Affairs Ministry said that the country’s forces had conducted “precision military strikes” against what it called terrorist hide-outs in southeastern Iran. A number of militants were killed.

The arguments

After the Iran strikes, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry declared the recall of its ambassador in Tehran. Additionally, Iran’s ambassador to Islamabad, currently in Tehran, would not be permitted to return to Pakistan.

The statement issued by the ministry characterized Iran’s actions, which it deemed an unprovoked breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty, as a violation of international law and the principles outlined in the Charter of the United Nations. The statement concluded with a stern warning, stating, “This illegal act is completely unacceptable and has no justification whatsoever. Pakistan reserves the right to respond to this illegal act. The responsibility for the consequences will lie squarely with Iran.”

Interestingly, these attacks occurred at a time when there had been increased engagements between Pakistani and Iranian officials, both civilian and military, in recent days. Prior to Iranian jets bombing Balochistan, Pakistani caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar had a meeting with Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amirabdollahian at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Furthermore, Pakistan’s interim Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani had discussions with Iran’s special representative for Afghanistan affairs, Hassan Kazmi Qomi, in Islamabad earlier in the week, focusing on the necessity for enhanced coordination for regional stability.

In December, Iranian media reported that the country’s interior minister had issued a warning to Pakistan, urging them to prevent the Jaish al-Adl group from launching attacks in Iran. This warning followed the death of 11 policemen in the southeastern city of Rask in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, which shares a border with Pakistan.

Earlier, in May 2023, six Iranian border guards were killed in clashes near the Pakistan border, prompting Iran to call on Pakistan to take more decisive action. The two nations, connected by a roughly 900km (559-mile) long border in Pakistan’s southwest and Iran’s southeast, have accused each other of harbouring armed groups.

Pakistan has been grappling with a prolonged uprising by Baloch rebels seeking secession. Moreover, Iran has been pressing Pakistan to address the activities of Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni armed group that has targeted Iranian officials, purportedly advocating for improved living conditions in Sistan-Baluchestan, Iran’s most impoverished province.

The facts

Pakistan chose to respond with its own attacks inside Iran, potentially leading to a more prolonged conflict. With Afghanistan to the west and India to the east, this could initiate conflict on a third border, but there is an uncertainty about Islamabad’s readiness for such a scenario.

Sources say that Pakistan will explore both diplomatic and military options in its response. Pakistan may seek a public apology through diplomatic channels and retaliate with small strikes on Iran’s territory, but not more than this.

Analysts expressed surprise at Iran’s escalation despite the ongoing security conflict in the Middle East. The Iranian actions will have enduring effects on bilateral relations, impacting both politics and security. Furthermore, by conducting attacks within Pakistan, Iran has provided a justification for Pakistan to reciprocate by targeting sanctuaries of anti-Pakistan militant outfits, believed to be based in Iran or elsewhere.

Iranian air attacks might push Pakistan toward seeking greater alignment with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Each of these countries have an interest in containing Iran, framing the attack on Pakistan as part of a broader Iranian confrontation with the United States. Political analysts say that Tehran perceives Pakistan as a pawn in its high-stakes conflict with Washington.

 

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