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The Middle Eastern Chessboard: Gaza-Israel War, Escalations between Pakistan-Iran & USA-Iran Hostilities


Wars often have unintended consequences, and the Israel-Gaza war is no exception. The earlier Iranian strikes in the region and the very recent Jordanian strike killing American soldiers imply that greater conflict in the Middle East emanating from the Israel-Gaza war cannot be contained and can spill out eventually in unforeseen circumstances. The decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict will persist causing the entire Middle East region to be further embroiled in persistent conflict, turmoil, and instability to the detriment of world peace.

Much earlier, the Gaza war broke out after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas raided Israel on October 7, which killed 1,200 people. Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza has killed over 26,000 Palestinians.[1] Wars often have unintended consequences, and the Israel-Gaza war is no exception. A conflict between Pakistan and Iran was swiftly contained by both countries after November third week’s tit-for-tat missile attacks. Pakistan and Iran have moved quickly to de-escalate tensions.[2] However, damage has been done to the bilateral ties. 

Pakistan and Iran do have friendly relations but also beneath the surface, there exists tensions because of a long-standing blame game about the support of certain terrorist groups in each other’s border regions. The two countries share a 560-mile, largely lawless, border, across which smugglers and militants freely cross over to the other side. On the one hand, Pakistan alleges that Baloch terrorist groups like the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), find refuge across the border in Iran. On the other hand, Iran accused Pakistan of harbouring Sunni terrorist groups like the Jaish al-Adl. Both have also tried to downplay the terrorist threats in the past. [3] However, the border regions faced a low-level insurgency by Baluch nationalists for more than two decades.

Also Read: Israel-Hamas War and 2024: A Brief Analysis

Rising Violence in Pakistan

Pakistan’s very recent reaction was expected as it has been devastated by terrorism in recent years. The military leadership is committed to tackling the problem head-on. More importantly, the Pakistan military, which is now in absolute command of the country, wanted to function as both responsible and tough in protecting the country’s security. Therefore, it acted swiftly in retaliation to Iran’s attack as some terrorism within Pakistan is linked to Iran. In other words, the military command had no option but to function as it did. In 2023, Pakistan witnessed 1,524 violence-related fatalities and 1463 injuries from as many as 789 terror attacks and counter-terror operations.[4]

The Annual Security Report released by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) last month includes thousands of fatalities among civilians and security forces personnel. The overall fatalities including those of outlaws mark a record 6-year high, exceeding the 2018 level and highest since 2017. Moreover, Pakistan saw a surge in violence for the third consecutive year with an uptick recorded each year beginning from 2021. [5] On January 30, 2024, an attack by BLA separatist insurgents killed a police officer and wounded a dozen other people in Balochistan. Six BLA fighters were also killed. The attack was in apparent retaliation for Pakistani strikes on BLA hideouts in Iran earlier.[6]

Iran-Pakistan Damage Control

As expected, both countries moved swiftly at damage control. At the invitation of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani, his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir Abdollahian visited Pakistan on January 29. Abdollahian asserted on January 29, 2024, that there was “no doubt” that militants positioned in the border regions of both Pakistan and Iran were “led and supported by third countries”.

Surprisingly, Abdollahian emphasized the alleged involvement of third-party support for terrorists operating along the common border of Iran and Pakistan.[7] He disclosed that both sides agreed to prompt actions regarding border security, the necessity of combating terrorism, and the expansion of trade, commercial, and economic cooperation. Pakistan and Iran also agreed to work towards promoting the mutually desired goals of peace and prosperity, based on mutual respect and a collective approach to address common challenges.[8] Thus, both Iran and Pakistan showed desperation in repairing the damaged bilateral relations. Meanwhile, China is expected to further facilitate a rapprochement between the two countries.

Also Read: Israel-Hamas War: No Endgame Amid International Pressure

Why did Iran strike Pakistan? It was primarily domestic political compulsions which forced the Iranian regime to function as it did. The very recent killing of Brigadier General Sayyed Razi Mousavi in Syria and the bombings that devastated a memorial for General Qassim Suleimani, which killed one hundred people, forced the regime to take revenge. The Iranian strike in Pakistan was not alone, it followed strikes in Iraq and Syria earlier. These Iranian strikes are a display of Iran’s military power and resolve to not only Israel, the USA, and its allies but also Irani’s regional proxies such as the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and militias in Syria and Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. Thus, the Iranian strike against Pakistan must be understood in the greater context of the Middle East situation and the tensions that spring forth from the Gaza-Israel war. Undoubtedly, Iran and Pakistan want friendly relations and continue with their carefully handled border situations.

Iran-USA Hostilities Leading to a Wider Conflict?

Meanwhile, a deadly drone attack in Jordan by Iran-backed militants on January 28, 2024, killed three US soldiers and wounded more than 40 troops. The strike marks a major escalation in tensions that have engulfed the Middle East. US troops have been attacked over 160 times in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan since the Israel-Gaza war began. Also, Houthi fighters in Yemen have been firing drones and missiles at US warships in the Red Sea. The US has already retaliated in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen in response to previous attacks by Iran-backed groups. The Jordanian attacks had the marks of the Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-aligned armed group. However, the US had not yet made a final assessment. Meanwhile, Iran said that regional armed groups aligned with it respond to US aggressors at their discretion only.

Most importantly, experts have very correctly cautioned that any US strikes against Iran itself could force it to respond forcefully, pulling the US into another major Middle East war.[9] Given the domestic politics of the November elections, the Biden administration will surely respond to the Jordanian attack. Also, any response by the US will aggravate the situation which may lead to even wider conflict in the Middle East.

The awaited American response will pressure Iran to react again sooner rather than later. Given Iran’s enmity with both Israel and the US, it will have to somehow save face and act against them somehow, though not directly but in an indirect manner. Iranian support for its regional proxies will continue unabated. Iran will never directly confront either the US or Israel as its leadership is wise enough to avoid its collapse in that eventuality.

The earlier Iranian strikes in the region and the very recent Jordanian strike killing American soldiers imply that greater conflict in the Middle East emanating from the Israel-Gaza war cannot be contained and can spill out eventually in unforeseen circumstances. Although all countries in the region and beyond are trying to avert a regional escalation leading to a larger war, complex regional linkages will lead to further conflict in various manners. The Middle East region will see more instability in the future. The only way to stabilize the region is by ending the Israel-Gaza war and swiftly moving on the path of the universally agreed two-state solution leading to an independent Palestine. However, there is no evidence that such a path is achievable. Given the reluctance of both Israel and the US, a two-state solution is not happening at all. Thus, the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict will persist causing the entire Middle East region to be further embroiled in persistent conflict, turmoil, and instability to the detriment of world peace.

References:

  1. Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart, Pentagon says it is not seeking war with Iran after Jordan attack, Reuters, January 29, 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/austin-vows-all-necessary-actions-after-us-troop-deaths-2024-01-29/
  2. “Pakistan, Iran envoys to return by Jan 26: FO”,  The News, January 24, 2024,  https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/1150306-pakistan-iran-envoys-to-return-by-jan-26-fo Kamran Yousaf, “Pakistan, Iran announce return of ambassadors Iran FM to visit Pakistan on Jan 29”, Express Tribune, January 22, 2024, https://tribune.com.pk/story/2454052/pakistan-iran-announce-return-of-ambassadors
  3. Kamran Yousaf, “Pakistan, Iran working discreetly to prevent future border crisis,” Express Tribune, January 21, 2024, https://tribune.com.pk/story/2453974/pakistan-iran-working-discreetly-to-prevent-future-border-crisis
  4. Ahmed Subhan, “Three varsities in Islamabad ‘closed for an indefinite period amid security concerns”, The News, January 22, 2024 https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/1150275-three-varsities-in-islamabad-closed-for-indefinite-period-amid-security-concerns
  5. Ibid
  6. Officials say 1 policeman, 6 insurgents killed as rebels launch rocket attacks in southwest Pakistan, The Associated Press, January 30, 2024, https://wtop.com/world/2024/01/officials-say-1-policeman-6-insurgents-killed-as-rebels-launch-rocket-attacks-in-southwest-pakistan/
  7. ‘No doubt’ militants in Iran, Pakistan ‘supported by third countries’, says Tehran envoy” Express Tribune, January 29, 2024 ‘No doubt militants in Iran, Pak supported by third countries’ (tribune.com.pk)
  8. Ibid
  9. Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart, Pentagon says it is not seeking war with Iran after Jordan attack, Reuters, January 29, 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/austin-vows-all-necessary-actions-after-us-troop-deaths-2024-01-29/

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About the author

Sohail Mahmood is an independent global affairs analyst and the author of several books, monographs, and research articles on the Middle East and South Asian politics, governance, and development issues. He has taught for about 30 years in various universities of Pakistan and the US and has worked as a consultant for the World Bank, CIDA, SDC, IUCN, and UNDP. Sohail lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States.


Sohail Mahmood

Sohail Mahmood is an independent global affairs analyst and the author of several books, monographs, and research articles on the Middle East and South Asian politics, governance, and development issues. He has taught for about 30 years in various universities of Pakistan and the US and has worked as a consultant for the World Bank, CIDA, SDC, IUCN, and UNDP. Sohail lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States.

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