Photo: Farooq Naeem Agence France-Presse Young activists from Muslim Talba Mahaz demonstrated against the Iranian airstrike in Islamabad on Thursday.
Joe Stenson – Agence France-Presse and Ashraf Khan – Agence France-Presse respectively in Islamabadand in Karachi
January 18, 2024
The airstrikes carried out by Pakistan and Iran and targeting rebel groups taking refuge in each other's territory mark a sudden worsening of friction between the two neighboring countries, at a time when the region is already under high tension, notes analysts.
“This kind of attack has never been carried out before by either side,” Nausheen Wasi, a professor of international relations at the University of Karachi. “Escalation should be avoided. »
Nuclear-armed Pakistan and its western neighbor have both experienced decades-long insurgencies along their 1,000-kilometer shared border.
- Pakistan accuses Iran of deadly airstrike on its territory
- Pakistan retaliates by striking 'terrorist hideouts' in Iran
Tehran announced that it had struck the “terrorist group” Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice in Arabic) on Pakistani soil on Tuesday evening. Deeming this attack “totally unacceptable”, Pakistan recalled its ambassador to Iran and banned the Iranian ambassador.
In response, Pakistan also targeted Pakistani separatists of Baloch ethnicity in Iranian territory on Thursday morning.
The Iranian attack caused the death of two children, according to Islamabad. At least nine people, including four children and three women, were killed by Pakistani strikes, according to Iranian state media.
The two countries have accused each other of an inability to control armed groups operating from the territory of the other.
These attacks come as the Middle East is shaken by several crises, a situation that has prevailed since Israel declared war in the Gaza Strip on the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in response to its bloody attack on October 7 on the country.
Yemen's Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, have attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea, and Israeli forces exchange daily fire with the pro-Iranian Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah on the Israeli border -Lebanese.
Iran also launched missile strikes on Tuesday at what it called “spy” headquarters and “terrorist” targets in Syria and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iran expects tensions with Israel to “increase” as the war in Gaza drags on, says Sanam Vakil of the British think tank Chatham House. “He places these red lines to directly show Israel what it will or will not respond to,” she adds.
“Iran wants to strengthen its position,” agrees Ms. Wasi. The attacks are a warning to the international community rather than to Pakistan. »
The Pakistani response has accentuated fears of a spiral. But “the consequence of the new situation is that the two countries are [now] apparently and symbolically even,” says Antoine Levesque, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The risks of further escalation are minimal, and perhaps diminishing over time,” he predicts.
According to Ms. Vakil, the Pakistani response “seems quite moderate” and copies Tehran's method, which has stressed only targeting Iranian groups operating from abroad.
Elections in Pakistan
Thursday's victims would thus be of Pakistani nationality, indicated the Iranian Fars agency without citing a source.
“There is definitely room for de-escalation here,” Ms. Vakil emphasizes. They could find a solution that would allow [everyone] to save face. »
Pakistan is preparing to hold a general election on February 8, and its all-powerful military has already been accused of seeking to influence the outcome.
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the country's most popular politician, is currently in detention, and has been declared ineligible for five years after attacking the military.
Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who led the country three times, is considered the favorite in the poll, with analysts saying he enjoys the support of the military.
Pakistan is also grappling with a sharp increase in attacks on the Afghan border and a deterioration in its relations with the Taliban authorities in Kabul.
“Don't overlook the political boost the military could get from this retaliation against Iran,” warned Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.
“The army’s crackdown on Imran Khan and his party has fueled public anger against it. This retaliatory strike could have a rallying effect around the flag, even if only momentarily,” he wrote on X.
Washington “does not want an escalation” of tensions
The United States does not “want escalation in South and Central Asia,” a White House spokesperson said Thursday when asked about Iran's reciprocal attacks and latter-day Pakistan. The US executive is “closely monitoring” tensions between the two countries, which sharply escalated this week, according to John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council.
He added that Pakistan, a US ally, “was struck first by Iran, which [is] another dangerous attack, yet another example of Iran's disruptive role in the region.”
Joe Biden, for his part, believed that the abrupt increase in tensions showed that Iran, the bête noire of the United States, was “not appreciated” in the region. “I don’t know where this is going to go,” the US president added.