Will Pakistan retaliate against ‘unacceptable’ Iran air attacks?

A counterattack is possible, but Pakistan would be wary of getting pulled into a wider conflict. What Pakistan might instead do is strengthen ties with Iran’s rivals, say analysts.

Pakistan and Iran share a border of roughly 900 km (559 miles) located in Pakistan’s southwest and Iran’s southeast [Naseer Ahmed/Reuters]
Pakistan and Iran share a border of roughly 900km (559 miles) that is often tense, with each side accusing the other of sheltering groups hostile to their interests [Naseer Ahmed/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Iran’s air attacks on Tuesday night inside Pakistani territory in the southwestern province of Balochistan threaten to pull Islamabad into a broader regional conflict, analysts warn, less than a month before national elections.

The bombings, which Iran said were aimed at the armed group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), resulted in the death of at least two children while injuring three more, according to a statement by the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The ministry on Wednesday said it “strongly condemned” the incident – which took place near the border city of Panjgur – calling it a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, and announced the recall of Pakistan’s envoy in Tehran.

“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,” it said in a statement.

But what might those consequences be?

Diplomatic blowback

On Wednesday afternoon Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry announced that it was recalling its ambassador in Tehran. Iran’s ambassador to Islamabad, who is currently in Tehran, would not be allowed back into Pakistan, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson said.

“Last night’s unprovoked and blatant breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty by Iran is a violation of international law and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” the statement said, before issuing a threat.

“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.”

Increased bilateral engagement

Ironically, the attacks came amid increased interactions between Pakistani and Iranian officials, both civilian and military, in recent days.

Hours before Iran fired missiles into Balochistan, Pakistani caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar had met Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hossein Amirabdollahian on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland.

Pakistan’s interim Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani met with Iran’s special representative for Afghanistan affairs, Hassan Kazmi Qomi, in Islamabad earlier this week, where the two discussed the need for “enhanced coordination for regional stability”.

The two countries also participated in a one-day naval exercise on January 16 in the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz.

Despite these recent engagements, and a 2022 decision to form a joint working group for border management, low-scale clashes at the border have remained a constant feature.

Iranian media in December reported that the country’s interior minister issued a warning to Pakistan to stop the Jaish al-Adl group from launching attacks in Iran, after the death of 11 policemen in the southeastern city of Rask in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, which borders Pakistan.

In May 2023, six Iranian border guards were killed in clashes near the Pakistan border, resulting in Iran issuing a warning, asking Pakistan to “do more”. A month earlier, four Pakistani soldiers were also killed in cross-border firing in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

The countries share a roughly 900km (559-mile) long border in Pakistan’s southwest and Iran’s southeast. They have accused each other of sheltering armed groups.

Pakistan has been facing a decades-long uprising by Baloch rebels who demand secession.

On the other hand, Iran has demanded that Pakistan act against Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni armed group which has targeted Iranian officials, reportedly demanding better living conditions for people in Sistan-Baluchestan, the most impoverished province of the country.

Iran’s attack inside Pakistani territory, coming at a time when Israel’s war on Gaza could escalate regional tensions, deserves a mature response, said Mosharraf Zaidi of the Islamabad-based Tabadlab think tank. Iran has also launched attacks inside Syria and Iraq recently.

“Pakistan’s response so far is exactly what it should be. The Iranians are looking to provoke an unnecessary reaction,” he told Al Jazeera. “The real risk right now is the wider dangers of Pakistan being sucked into a conflict that it is not a primary actor in and will be distracted further by.”

A military response?

On the other hand, Kamran Bokhari, senior director for the Washington, DC-based New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, said Pakistan could respond with its own attacks – though that could mean a potentially longer-term conflict for Pakistan.

“After Afghanistan on the West and India on the East, this could open conflict on a third border. I am not too sure if Islamabad is ready for that,” he told Al Jazeera.

An Iranian missile being launched during a training exercise
Iran has fired missiles at targets in Syria, Iran and Pakistan this week [File: Handout/Iranian Army/WANA via Reuters]

Pakistan has summoned Iran’s top diplomat in Islamabad to register its protest. Ihsanullah Tipu, a security analyst, said he expected Pakistan to work on both a diplomatic riposte and look at potential options for a military response.

“For Pakistan to strike back, the justification and pressure are both present. It could seek a public apology via diplomatic channels from the highest Iranian officials, but if those efforts fail, Pakistan could also consider a military response to the Iranian attack,” Tipu told Al Jazeera.

Tipu, who is a director at The Khorasan Diary, a news and research portal which tracks and analyses security issues in the region, expressed his surprise at the escalation by Iran despite the continuing security conflict in the Middle East region.

He said Iranian actions would have a long-lasting effect and implications on bilateral relations, in the realms of both politics and security.

“By carrying out attacks inside Pakistan, it has given a kind of justification to Pakistan to follow the same path in response to target the sanctuaries of anti-Pakistan militant outfits, which Pakistan considers are based in Iran or even elsewhere,” Tipu added.

Bokhari said that the Iranian air attacks could push Pakistan into seeking “greater alignment” with the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

“Each of these countries has an interest in making sure Iran is contained. The attack on Pakistan is only one element of a broader Iranian confrontation with the United States,” he said.

“Tehran sees Pakistan as a pawn in this high-risk brinkmanship with Washington.”

Source: Al Jazeera