In just two days this week, Iran launched missiles – first into Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region and Syria, and then into Pakistan – in attacks that could further inflame tensions in a region on edge.
Monday’s attacks in Syria were against alleged ISIL (ISIS) targets. In Erbil, Iraq, Tehran claimed it hit a Mossad facility, also on Monday. At least four people were killed, according to Kurdish authorities.
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Then on Tuesday, Iran fired missiles into Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Their target was the separatist group Jaish al-Adl but at least two children were killed. Pakistan launched retaliatory attacks on Thursday morning, killing at least nine people in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, just across the border.
These rapid attacks by Iran on three different neighbours have sparked concerns of a regional escalation and triggered questions over the timings of Tehran’s decision to launch cross-border strikes, given Israel’s continuing war on Gaza.
On the surface, the alleged targets of Iranian attacks in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan appear to have little in common. But there’s a common thread tying Tehran’s actions – even though the strike on Pakistan may have been a reckless and ill-considered gamble – say analysts.
“It has to do, I think, with Iran’s overall threat perception in the region rising. And at the same time, feeling the need – as a result of domestic and external pressure – to respond,” said Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at SWP Berlin.
In late December, Israel killed Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a top Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander in Syria, in a missile strike outside Damascus.
At the start of the year, two explosions among mourners attending the memorial of Iran’s late IRGC chief Qassem Soleimani killed at least 90 civilians and wounded dozens more in the city of Kerman. It was the deadliest armed attack on Iranian soil in decades. Soleimani had been assassinated in a United States drone strike two years previously.
The bombing was later claimed by ISIL in Afghanistan. However, Iran accused the group of acting in concert with Israel, setting the stage for its recent attacks on the group’s alleged facilities in northern Syria and the Iraqi Kurdish region’s capital, Erbil.
Last month, Jaish al-Adl had also claimed responsibility for a police station attack in the Iranian town of Rask in Sistan-Baluchestan, which killed 11 Iranian security personnel.
“If you look at the series of incidents,” Azizi said, “these had projected the image of Iran’s intelligence weakness and lack of seriousness and will to respond. So the calculation in Tehran might have been that by allowing this to continue, their very credibility would be at stake.
“And that was why they decided to show a response all at once.”
Yet, beyond the desire to show strength on multiple fronts at the same time, analysts caution against conflating events along the Pakistan border with those taking place in Gaza.
While both Pakistan and Iran have routinely accused the other of allowing armed groups into the other’s territory, even going so far as to exchange mortar fire in 2014, they have nevertheless enjoyed military and diplomatic ties reaching back years.
On the same day that Iran attacked Pakistan, the two countries were conducting joint naval operations in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. Moreover, just hours before the Iranian strike, the country’s foreign ministry posted images of its minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, shaking the hand of Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister, Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos.
Those longstanding ties, coupled with anonymous Telegram messages seen by Al Jazeera and said to be from sources close to the IRGC, have led to speculation that the strikes may have been prearranged and even coordinated between Iran and Pakistan. According to some of the Telegram messages, the attacks had originally been slated for last week.
However, to accept that interpretation of events is to overlook Pakistan’s own international position: distant from the storm raging in the Gulf, relatively removed from the ideological competition that links many of its principal actors and jealously proud of its status as a nuclear power.
“The (strike) is costly for Pakistan, especially regarding its relationship with India (Islamabad’s longstanding nuclear rival) and that’s exactly why I don’t believe Pakistan would ever have agreed to coordinate with Iran in this way,” Abdolrasool Divsallar, a senior researcher at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“Iran and Pakistan need each other mutually,” he said. “Even though Pakistan has struck back, my guess is that the escalation will remain limited and constrained.”
China, the most important ally of Iran and Pakistan, has already offered to mediate, and the neighbours also have platforms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which they are both members, where they can engage diplomatically.
That the attack on a nuclear power was intended to send clear messages to the United States and its allies, not least Israel, is hard to dispute. However, it was also intended for internal consumption, say analysts.
“The credibility and prestige of the Islamic republic was already waning, even among its own supporters,” Azizi said, adding preserving what remains of the support, much of it hardline, has become imperative.
However, while the odds of these latest strikes contributing towards a greater regional conflict may be limited, they are not non-existent. A day after Pakistan fired back at Iran, neither side has engaged in any further military action against the other. Yet, by striking a nuclear power, even an ostensibly friendly one, Iran has sent a message that will echo far beyond Balochistan.