Published1 day ago
These are shape-shifting times in the Middle East.
This week, out of the blue, Iran suddenly attacked targets in “friendly” Pakistan, sparking an unprecedented tit-for-tat across their volatile border and a sharp spike in tension on a far edge of the grievous Israel-Gaza war.
Iran wanted a message to be heard loud and clear – at home, and a long way beyond.
“It has showcased its missile arsenal and its willingness to use it,” says Vali Nasr, professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“It was a message also likely intended for Israel and the US in the midst of the Gaza war, especially with the potential escalation in Lebanon and Yemen.”
Like most observers, he believes “for now Iran is not looking to escalate”.
Ever since the Gaza war exploded after Hamas’s murderous 7 October assault on southern Israel, it has been darkened by fears of an even more dangerous contagion. No-one, including Iran and its principal partner Hezbollah, as well as the United States, wants to see an even hotter conflagration.
Iran’s war has been a web of shadow wars. It sits at the fulcrum of what it calls an “axis of resistance”, the alliance of Tehran-backed groups dotting the region, from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the Houthis in Yemen, and well-armed groups in both Iraq and Syria. Most have been designated as terrorist entities by some Western states.
Their military prowess is rooted in Iran’s accelerated arming and training; each actor also has agendas and ambitions of its own.
Fires have been burning on all these fronts, and sometimes blazing, with efforts to douse the flames lest they provoke crippling Israeli and American reprisals.
When Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) carried out these first direct strikes since this crisis erupted, they trained their sights on Pakistan and two other friendly countries. They may have seen them as areas of least resistance beyond the highly combustible landscape of their “axis of resistance”.
Iran’s elite force unleashed a barrage of ballistic missiles and suicide drones against what it called an intelligence centre for Israel’s Mossad spy agency in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, and at “anti-Iran terror groups” including Islamic State in rebel-controlled swathes of Syria.
Each operation was said to have its own specific retaliatory rationale.
Iran says it had to aim fire at Iranian Baloch separatists operating in restive southwest Pakistan.
“An attack was imminent. They had gathered and were leaving the base,” says Prof Seyed Mohammad Marandi at the University of Tehran. He also points to last month’s killing of 11 Iranian police officers in its tense province of Sistan and Balochistan.
Pakistan also spoke of an “impending attack” when it then fired its own salvos two days later into southern Iran against what it said were bases of its own Baloch nationalists, which it called “terrorist targets”. This cross-border tension has simmered for decades; this is its worst moment.
Northern Iraq and Syria, closer to the Gaza epicentre, were about settling separate scores.
“The attacks in Iraq and Syria were retaliation for the general as well as the atrocity in Kerman,” explains Prof Marandi. He’s referring to last month’s assassination just outside Damascus of one of the IRGC’s most senior men, Sayyed Razi Mousavi, which was widely reported as the work of an Israeli air strike.
Then, earlier this month, a double suicide bombing shattered a memorial service in Iran for Qasem Soleimani, the top commander assassinated by an American drone in Iraq four years ago. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
“Iran has been under pressure to react, including to the killing of senior Hamas and Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon, but it doesn’t want to get directly embroiled in any escalation by hitting Israel or the US,” says Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of Amwaj media, which provides in-depth analyses of the region.
“We are going to continue to see a slow boil,” he says.
These are also tough times at home for Iran’s ruling clerics. They’ve faced unprecedented women-led protests over social freedoms and more, as well as financial woes stemming from international sanctions, alleged corruption, and mismanagement.
And there has been blowback after these latest operations, with angry denunciations from Iraq, as well as the Arab League, and an even more forceful rebuke from Pakistan.
“They did not think through that striking in Pakistan territory could just have no repercussions,” remarks former Pakistan foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar. “Their action created a crater of distrust. It will take hard work and persistence to fill.”
There are wars within wars in every corner of this conflict. Pakistan also had to be seen to be setting its own red lines in a neighbourhood where age-old rival India, as well as Taliban-run Afghanistan, were watching closely. Accusations and more of harbouring hostile forces have long been hurled across those borders too.
This past week has been a reminder, if one was needed, of the unpredictability and peril in this moment of a widening and worsening Israel-Gaza war.
Any day can be a flare-up on one or multiple fronts – and there are the longer-term risks being shaped in a region where fault lines were deeply and darkly etched long before Hamas’s 7 October attacks.
Israel’s largest loss of life in a single day since the founding of its state, as well as the seizing of more than 250 hostages, sparked a military campaign causing a staggering number of civilian deaths and turning much of Gaza into an unliveable wasteland.
It has enraged and emboldened this Iran-backed military alliance of militant non-state actors. They’ve been drawing closer for years. Now they’ve forged a far more vocal and visible league.
For Iran’s adversaries, the proverbial “we need to do something about Iran” may now be even riskier. It may also mean confronting Tehran’s staunchest allies across the region.
“Tehran has achieved what the Pentagon calls military ‘overmatch’ – a level of capability in which a country has weaponry that makes it extremely difficult to check or defeat,” says Robin Wright, author of several books on Iran and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
This current escalation has not been cost-free. US salvos against Iranian-backed fighters in Iraq are reported to have significantly damaged their infrastructure.
The Pentagon says its air strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, in an effort to stop their attacks on vessels in the vital Red Sea shipping lanes, have destroyed a quarter of the Houthi arsenal.
But on the balance sheets of some of Iran’s allies, they believe they’re winning far more than they’re losing. Standing up for Gazans has galvanised their popularity on Arab streets. Yemen’s Houthis in particular are relishing being catapulted into the centre of world attention.
Minds are already focused on the “day after”, when this Israel-Gaza war ends, including in Tehran, which has long prided itself on its “strategic patience”.
“Iran is playing a broader longer game,” points out Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House. “It perhaps anticipates that after Gaza winds down Israel is going to be more provocative towards Iran, so it is preparing for a longer fight.”
Iran’s long-term goals include keeping the US out of its backyard, and avoiding a direct confrontation with Israel and America.
That means careful calculations on where and how it strikes in a hazardous region where the risks of miscalculation are always dangerously high.
- Tough choices for Israel in US’s Middle East vision
- Huge challenges for Israel on its vague ‘day after’ Gaza plan
- Stakes are immense as Biden presses Israel to change course
- Hamas support soars in West Bank – but full uprising can still be avoided
- The status quo is smashed. The future is messy and dangerous
- Bowen: US sets clearer red lines for Israel as ceasefire ends
- When this truce ends, the decisive next phase of war begins