The Pakistani attacks, carried out with “drones, rockets, loitering munitions and standoff weapons,” were launched in response to Iranian strikes inside Pakistan on Tuesday that killed two children, according to Pakistani officials. Both sides said they had targeted separatist militant groups that pose cross-border threats.
Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, cut short his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and Pakistani officials said their military — one of the largest in the region — remained on high alert.
While the Pakistan-Iran border region has seen occasional outbreaks of violence in recent years, this week’s attacks came amid growing concerns over rising instability in the region following the launch of Israel’s war with Hamas militants, who are supported by Iran. Over the past week, the United States carried out several strikes against Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen, who have been attacking shipping in the Red Sea; Iran, meanwhile, attacked targets in Iraq and Syria on Monday.
The strikes between Iran and Pakistan appeared somewhat unrelated, in that they targeted militant groups that primarily pose local challenges and pursue limited regional goals.
Pakistan said its strikes targeted members of the separatist Baluchistan Liberation Army and Baluchistan Liberation Front, which view themselves as representing the Baluch community that lives across Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
Jaish al-Adl, the Sunni group that Iran said it targeted Tuesday, also views itself as a Baluch separatist group. Pakistani officials dispute that the groups targeted by the Iranian and Pakistani strikes this week truly represent the Baluch communities.
Amid mounting volatility across the region, Tehran “likely calculated this was an opportune moment to strike in Pakistan,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.
While Thursday’s Pakistani retaliatory strikes mark an escalation that Iran may not have expected, the severity of Pakistan’s response could also “create openings for de-escalation,” said Kugelman, especially as “the Pakistan-Iran relationship is not a hostile one and channels for dialogue are readily available.”
But “if either side strikes again, all bets are off, and we’d have a real risk of a conflict,” he said.
The strike in Pakistan was one in a string of recent Iranian attacks in the region, coming later the same day that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said it launched missiles at Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region, targeting what it called an “espionage headquarters” of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Iraqi and Kurdish officials denied the claims.
The Revolutionary Guard also said it launched missiles in Syria, claiming to hit “the commanders and the main agents” behind two explosions this month in the Iranian city of Kerman that killed at least 95 people, an attack claimed by the radical Islamic State group.
Pakistani officials portrayed Thursday’s strikes in Iran as proportionate.
“It’s a measured, targeted response,” said Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chairman of the Pakistani Senate Defense Committee, citing the lack of an Iranian apology for Tuesday’s strikes in Pakistan and “arrogant” and “offensive” comments from the Iranian Foreign and Defense ministries.
On Wednesday, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, defended Tehran’s strikes, saying they “only targeted Iranian terrorists on the soil of Pakistan” and no Pakistani citizens. “We don’t allow our national security to be compromised and to be played with, and we have no reservations, no hesitations when it comes to our national interests.”
In justifying its retaliatory strikes on Thursday, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry used similar wording, saying it “fully respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” but that its “security and national interest” cannot be compromised.
Additional attacks would be “catastrophic,” Hina Rabbani Khar, a former Pakistani foreign minister, told The Washington Post.
Neither Iran nor Pakistan “can afford the escalation.”
Noack reported from Kabul and Vinall from Melbourne, Australia. Susannah George in Dubai contributed to this report.