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Blood Seeps the Sand

Middle East destabilised further as Iran and Pakistan exchange blows

By: Frederica Allen

On 16th January 2024, Iran fired missiles at targets in Pakistan. Tehran, the capital of Iran, have admitted to attacking the anti-Iran insurgent group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) in Western Pakistan. In response, Islamabad returned fire a couple days later, attacking targets in Iran they claim are part of an anti-Pakistan ethno-nationalist insurgency group.

A worrying development, especially considering two concurrent attacks by Iran in Syria and Iraq. This begs the question; what is Tehran’s end-game? On the face of it, it was to neutralise a threat to Iran, Jaish al-Adl, yet the Islamic Republic has never performed a pre-emptive strike on Pakistani soil before, even though the insurgency group’s presence in Pakistan has been a long-standing grievance.

Beyond the surface, as fighting wages in other areas of the region, Iran is trying to broaden the conflict and discourage political players from aligning with the United States. A US air base was struck by Houthi rebels, Iranian-backed militants. Houthi rebels are funded by Iran and are engaged in conflict with American and British naval vessels in the Red Sea, whilst Hamas and Hezbollah, also funded by Iran, are fighting Israel. Israel is a key US ally in the region. Of course, this is all speculation, and Tehran’s true motive, other than the claimed goal of attacking Jaish al-Adl, remains obscure.

Why did Pakistan retaliate? Letting Iran launch missiles into Pakistan unpunished would only incentivise them to do it again. Additionally, Pakistan’s political reality is a lot more fraught. The country has three borders, one with Iran, the others with Afghanistan and India, both of which are concerning neighbours for Pakistan.

Image by: Pavellllllll, Pixabay

India and Pakistan have a difficult history. Both were once part of the Raj, Britain’s colonial administration of India, but were partitioned during decolonisation so there was a country for Hindus, India, and one for Muslims, Pakistan. The partition was an extraordinarily messy affair, with many Hindus and Muslims killed and border disputes left unresolved, leading to over half a century of tension between the two.

Afghanistan is a more recent concern. Since the Taliban’s return to power, tensions have risen between the two states due to the Taliban protecting an anti-Pakistan group called the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan.

With no friends nearby to help, it would seem reasonable not to provoke Tehran, as a full-blown conflict could result in the involvement of India and/or an opportunistic Taliban.

Nevertheless, Islamabad chose to return fire. If they did not, it is likely their three neighbours would be left unimpressed and see the country as weak-willed.

Pakistan is also a nuclear armed country, and Iran is stretched thin with all the militants Tehran is backing. Islamabad is most likely hoping to deter Iran for the moment while China, an Iranian ally, seeks to cool down tensions between the two. Following Pakistan’s strike, it is likely both Iran and China are looking to de-escalate the issue, as continued breaches of Iran’s territorial integrity could send a message to both Israel and the US that Iran is in a position of weakness. This likely means the border between the two will cool down. Of course, after the initial attack on Tuesday, anything seems possible right now.


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