Iran and Pakistan have carried out air attacks on each other’s territories, targeting armed groups near their 900km-long (559-mile) volatile border, which they say were meant to ensure their respective national security.
Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) targeted an armed group in Panjgur town of Pakistan’s Balochistan province late on Tuesday, prompting Pakistan to bomb hideouts of armed groups in the Sistan-Baluchestan province of Iran early on Thursday.
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Let’s take a look at why the neighbours have resorted to direct military strikes, who the targets were, and what the attacks tell us.
What has happened so far?
The IRGC, an elite force which is a vital part of the Iranian establishment but separate from Iran’s army, hit the Jaish al-Adl armed group with missile and drone strikes in a mountainous region in Pakistan close to the Iranian border.
Iran said it targeted the Iranian “terrorist” group it blamed for recent attacks in the Iranian city of Rask in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan.
“The group has taken shelter in some parts of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. We’ve talked with Pakistani officials several times on this matter,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on Tuesday from the Swiss city of Davos.
Videos from the scene showed what appeared to be a precision strike on a building, and Iranian media celebrated the destruction of a “terrorist” site. The Pakistani government said two children were killed in the attack, believed to be the first such attack by Iran on Pakistani soil.
Pakistan launched several air attacks using drones and rockets on a border village in Saravan town, about 1,800km (1,100 miles) from the Iranian capital, Tehran, saying it hit Baloch “notorious terrorist” separatists. Tehran said nine people, including seven women and children, were killed in the attacks.
Both countries’ foreign ministries released statements to say they respected the other’s territorial integrity but took measures to safeguard their national security.
The Iranian attack came hours after Iran and Pakistan held a joint naval exercise, and the two countries’ foreign ministers spoke in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum. Both summoned their respective envoys, but there has been no talk of cutting diplomatic relations.
Iran on Thursday held a large-scale military exercise in its southeastern areas near Pakistan, deploying a range of aircraft and missile systems.
Who are the ‘terrorists’ targeted?
Iran’s target inside Pakistan was the ethnic Baloch and Sunni group known as Jaish al-Adl, meaning Army of Justice, which surfaced around 2012.
It purports to fight for better living conditions in the southeastern Sistan-Baluchestan province, which is Iran’s most impoverished and the longstanding scene of border tensions.
Tehran considers it a “terrorist” group due to numerous deadly assaults on Iranian outposts and security forces near the border over more than a decade. Officials call it Jaish al-Zulm – the Army of Injustice.
The group was born out of Jundallah, another Iranian Baloch group, which Tehran accused of having direct links with the United States and Israel. It was responsible for a string of deadly attacks, including one in 2009 which killed dozens, including senior IRGC officials.
The leader of Jundallah, Abdolmalek Rigi, was captured in a dramatic operation by the Iranian army, with fighter jets forcing the landing of a passenger aircraft taking him from the United Arab Emirates to Kyrgyzstan in 2010. He was executed in Tehran the same year.
Pakistan, for its part, said its targets were the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), armed separatist groups which have launched numerous attacks inside Pakistan.
The BLF claimed in a statement on Thursday that none of its fighters – known as Sarmachar – were killed, dismissing as fake an earlier statement that had quoted one of its members as confirming air strikes had hit BLF positions inside Iran.
The latest cross-border strikes come against a backdrop of months of border attacks, with the latest attack by Jaish al-Adl on an Iranian border outpost launched from inside Pakistan in December killing 11 police officers.
What do the Iranian attacks tell us?
Even though the strikes come after years of border tensions, they are happening within the context of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has pitted the Iran-backed “axis of resistance” against Washington and its allies.
This was the first time that Iran and Pakistan launched direct assaults on each other’s territory, and the first time since the end of the eight-year invasion of Iran by Iraq in 1988 that Iranian soil was targeted by a missile.
Iran’s attack on Pakistan came a day after it launched 24 missiles from three different Iranian provinces on Iraq and Syria in a military show of force amid US and United Kingdom attacks on Yemen and Western support for the Gaza war.
The attacks in the Levant were also framed as revenge for twin bombings in Kerman earlier this month that killed at least 90 civilians, serving to assuage domestic calls for retaliation.
Yet they also showcase the capabilities and precision of the largest and most varied missile arsenal of the Middle East.
In Iraq, Iran claims to have hit a Mossad-linked target in what appeared to be a precision strike. A wealthy Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dizayee was confirmed killed.
Images from the area show that only the villa of the Dizayee was destroyed and it was located in the vicinity of the US consulate and the international airport in the regional capital, Erbil, where US and other foreign forces are stationed.
For ISIL (ISIS)-linked targets in Syria’s Idlib, the IRGC made a point of saying that it used its brand new Kheibar Shekan ballistic missile with a stated range of 1,450km (900 miles).
Even though the missiles could have been launched from a province closer to Syria, their stated launch site was in Khuzestan, which is several hundred kilometres farther.
This means that the missiles travelled close to 1,300km (807 miles) to hit precise targets. That puts the entirety of Israel and occupied Palestinian territories within reach of Iranian missiles, sending a message that Tehran’s longstanding threat to “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground” if necessary can be exacted.
The strikes on Pakistan were smaller and covered a relatively short distance by comparison, but they were only part of a larger display of force aimed at increasing Iran’s deterrence without pushing the country into an all-out war.