Military and political tensions in the Middle East around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are gaining new momentum with a bias towards the expansion and internationalisation of the conflict – from local to regional. On the one hand, pro-Iranian forces in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq are creating a belt of high tension for Israel and the targets (military, diplomatic and commercial) of its Western allies. On the other hand, the military forces and intelligence services of the Israeli-Western conditional bloc take retaliatory forceful measures to suppress the respective threats emanating from the pro-Iranian “axis of resistance.”
As a result, in addition to the epicentre of the military conflict between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, today combat and sabotage-terrorist actions of a local and pinpoint nature have spread to other territories and parts of the Middle East region (in particular, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Pakistan, the waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden).
Tel Aviv and Washington naturally link the combat activity of the same Yemeni Houthis, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Shiite groups in Syria and Iraq to Tehran, with the IRGC playing a coordinating and guiding role. It is no coincidence that Israel’s intelligence services have carried out a number of daring actions to kill top and senior IRGC officers responsible for coordinating the combat activities of the relevant groups in Syria and Lebanon.
The tension in the Red Sea created by the Houthis against trade and warships of Western countries (or those associated with them and Israel) is also linked by the Americans and Israelis to Iran. And no matter how Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian refutes this opinion of his opponents, his point of view has no influence on them.
A series of terrorist actions against Iran from December 2023 to January 2024 (in particular, the strikes on the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan by the Sunni group Jaish ul-Adl of Pakistan; the assassination of IRGC General Reza Mousavi in Damascus; a large-scale terrorist attack in Kerman on the day of commemoration of IRGC General Qasem Suleimani, revered by Iranians) forced Iran to declare retaliation and revenge.
This week, 15-17 January, a corresponding retaliatory operation was carried out by the IRGC using combined ballistic missile and drone strikes on the territories of Iraq, Syria and Pakistan with the justification of the right to self-defence. As a result, Iranian attacks targeted: Israel’s spy and subversion centre (or rather the Mossad regional centre) in Erbil, US air force bases and consulate in Iraq, Islamic State (Islamic State, an international terrorist organisation banned in Russia) facilities in northern Syria, two headquarters of the Pakistani militant organisation Jaish ul-Adl for their support of Baloch separatism, and terrorist attacks in Iran.
Commenting on the reasons for Iran’s retaliatory measures, experts differ in their opinions. For example, Russian orientalist Stanislav Tarasov considers the IRGC action in Iraq as revenge for the IDF attacks on Lebanon and the US strike on Aleppo in Syria. At the same time, he does not rule out that the Iranian response may be connected with the elimination of Hezbollah and Hamas leaders by Israeli intelligence.
Vyacheslav Mikhailov believes that Iran’s “missile anger” (especially on the territory of Erbil in Iraq and Idlib in Syria) has sent clear warnings and signals to Israel and Azerbaijan about the inevitability of Iranian strikes on the territory of the Jewish state and neighbouring Azerbaijan. As is known, in Erbil the Iranians struck the regional centre of “Mossad”, from where the Israeli intelligence managed and coordinated subversive and terrorist activities against Iran.
In turn, Tehran has repeatedly and publicly expressed negatively on the fact of regional anti-Iranian partnership and military-technical cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan, accused Baku of providing its territory for Mossad’s intelligence activities against Iran. Moreover, Iran opposes the opening of the Zangezur corridor in Armenia to link mainland Azerbaijan with the Nakhichevan enclave and Turkey, to the detriment of the sovereignty of the Armenian state and in favour of the Turan project. However, Iran has so far refrained from a direct military confrontation with Azerbaijan because it has NATO’s Turkey behind it.
Finally, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC Aerospace Forces, told the Tasnim news agency that the distance from the point of launch of the ballistic missile from Iran’s Khuzistan to Syria’s Idlib was 1,200 kilometres, the furthest missile strike from Iranian territory. This means that the Iranians have the technical ability and political will to strike directly at Israeli territory. It is true that Iran, unlike the missile system, does not have particularly developed air and missile defence systems, which may create vulnerability directly for the IRI.
In my opinion, Iran in its combined strikes by missiles and drones against the above-mentioned sites on the territories of Iraq, Syria and Pakistan expressed revenge for all the anti-Iranian actions of its opponents since the beginning of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In principle, the US and the Western coalition were not invited to the land of Syria, as well as Turkey. If Ankara is fighting Kurdish separatism, why does it allow itself to violate the sovereignty of neighbouring Syria and Iraq? What do Syrian or Iraqi Kurds have to do with Turkey’s territory? And Ankara today would hardly dare to cross Iran’s border with a similar formulation of its military operations, for it would receive a commensurate response.
As is well known, Iraq and Pakistan, having condemned the IRGC missile strikes, recalled their ambassadors for consultation and warned of the possible negative consequences of a military escalation in the Middle East.
Baghdad, through its Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani, has declared the inexpediency of the continued presence of American troops in the so-called international coalition on Iraqi territory. Iraqis (at least, the Shiite part) hardly want to continue to tolerate American regional arbitrariness, the deployment of U.S. military bases in their country, which are occasionally struck, causing retaliatory actions by Washington. However, today the Iraqi army is hardly in a position to engage in a direct military conflict with Iran.
China is known to have urged Islamabad for restraint after the Iranian strike on Pakistan. In turn, the Indian Foreign Ministry supported Iran’s right to self-defence and protection of sovereignty, which undoubtedly stems from the state of conflictual relations between New Delhi and Islamabad over the territorial dispute over the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Other observers from afar, with popcorn in front of their screens, favoured an immediate response by nuclear-armed Pakistan to “Iranian arbitrariness”.
As a result, a day after the Iranian action on 18 January, the Pakistan Air Force crossed the border territory in southeastern Iran up to 20 km deep and carried out strikes in the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, allegedly against terrorist targets. The code name of the Pakistani operation was “Death to Sarmachars” (sarmachars are Baloch separatists). The point is that there is no indication in Islamabad’s official statement of retaliation for Iran’s 17 January strike on Pakistan’s Balochistan province. On the contrary, the Foreign Office document notes brotherly relations with the people of Iran, who are jointly fighting the forces of terrorism and separatism.
In particular, the statement notes: “Iran is a brotherly country and the people of Pakistan-na have great respect and affection for the Iranian people. We have always stressed the importance of dialogue and cooperation in confronting common challenges, including the threat of terrorism, and will continue our efforts to find joint solutions.”
Tehran acknowledged 9 dead, who were not of Iranian nationality, although an IRGC facility (including IRGC Colonel Hossein-Ali Javdanfar and two of his bodyguards) is also noted to have been destroyed. Islamabad motivated its strikes with the identical formulation of defeating terrorist groups settled in Iran’s border territory. However, it is not noted which groups. In this case, how should the strike on the IRGC be attributed, and should Iran’s elite unit be considered terrorist?
The Turkish Anadolu Agency notes that for the first time since the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, the air force of a foreign country (in this case Pakistan) crossed Iranian airspace up to 20 kilometres deep and struck terrorist groups on its territory. The air force of a foreign state (in this case Pakistan) crossed Iranian airspace up to 20 kilometres deep and struck terrorist groups on its territory. In other words, the Turks support the Pakistanis’ interpretation but do not name the terrorists themselves.
It is clear that the language of diplomacy is meant to hide intentions behind words. The exchange of missile strikes with a link to the Baloch separatism theme between Iran and Pakistan has added to the tension of escalating military conflict east of West Asia with possible involvement of neighbouring Afghanistan, where the Balochistan theme also persists. Pakistan is unlikely to enter into a prolonged conflict with Iran, in whose security key Asian Tigers such as China and India are interested.
However, Pakistan could not react calmly to Iranian strikes without local coordination, which created a rather vulnerable position for the current Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, who left the Davos forum in a hurry. As is well known, elections are due to be held in Pakistan on February 8 in an extremely tense domestic political situation, as former Prime Minister Imran Khan, now in jail, is claiming power and criticising the country’s army leadership. Against the backdrop of a growing economic crisis and inflation, the weakness of the government could lead to voter apathy.
The aggravation of Iranian-Pakistani relations is also explained by the fact that Pakistan is a member of the club of nuclear countries, while Iran is on the verge of acquiring this status. In response, Iran has so far announced military exercises of the IRGC Air Force on the border with Pakistan (from Abadan to Chabahar), while Islamabad is withdrawing its population 20 kilometres inland from the border with Iran and has put its troops on extremely high alert. Let us hope that the conflict between Tehran and Islamabad will not escalate into a large-scale war.
Alexander SVARANTS – PhD of Political Science, Professor, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook»