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Analysis: Pakistan-Iran Tensions

On 16-17 January, Pakistan and Iran exchanged guided munition fire across their respective borders, both claiming to target Balochi separatist militants.

The incident started with an Iranian missile strike in the Panjgur district of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Tehran claimed it was targeting militants of the ‘Jaish al-Adl’ group. In retaliation, Pakistan executed own precision strikes in Iran’s Balochistan-Sistan province, claiming it targeted Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) hideouts.

Both Iran and Pakistan stressed that their respective strikes were not against the state, government, or military assets of their neighbour. Rather, both countries underlined their mutual focus to address apparent Balochi separatist threats across their borders.

On 19 January, both Pakistan and Iran announced that they will actively “de-escalate” tensions. In an official statement, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the two countries will strengthen their cooperation on counter-terrorism.

A Surprise Provocation

For Pakistan, Iran’s cross-border strikes were a surprise. Until 16 January, Islamabad had thought it had cordial relations with Tehran and, resultingly, response mechanisms to manage separatist and militancy/terrorism issues on both sides of the Balochistan-Sistan region.

In fact, historically speaking, Pakistan generally did not consider its border with Iran a vulnerability. To the contrary, Tehran (albeit under the Shah) had played an active role in strengthening Pakistan’s territorial integrity, especially in the latter’s earlier years when its security apparatus was far weaker and less developed. Ties have not been as strong since the Revolution, but they never corroded to a point where Pakistan had to consider defending its southwestern front with full-fledged conventional military capabilities, such as permanent armour and artillery deployments, for example.

Thus, Iran’s strikes could have escalated matters for Pakistan, not just in terms of its immediate-term response, but, potentially, its long-term treatment of Iran as well.

Domestic Pressure

Interestingly, the leadership establishments in both Iran and Pakistan were facing domestic pressure.

For Tehran, its strikes against supposed militant groups in Pakistan – as well as Iraq and Syria – was a signal to the Iranian population. Basically, Tehran wanted to show that it could wield strong regional influence and reach, especially when it came to pursuing its security interests.

Indeed, in the lead up to these strikes, Iran had suffered from numerous attacks, such as the killing of Sayed Razi Mousavi, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander), or the terrorist attack at a memorial of IRGC chief Qassem Soleimani, which killed over 90 civilians in Kerman. Thus, Tehran felt the need to show both its population and outside powers that it can exert force outside of its borders and, if prompted, retaliate with a mix of capabilities (e.g., proxies, missiles, drones, etc).

In effect, Tehran likely did not mean to target Pakistan to weaken it; rather, Pakistan was caught up in a wider narrative that Tehran was trying to build to raise its stature.

However, Tehran’s strikes cast a strong spotlight on Pakistan’s security leadership, which – ironically – was celebrating hardware inductions it claimed would defend against such strikes from India that same day, such as counter-tactical ballistic missile (TBM) systems, for example.

Now, much like how the Balakot episode against India in 2019, there was a general expectation in the public that the Pakistani military would respond to Iran’s apparent provocations. Moreover, Pakistan felt a compulsion to respond as allowing Iran to strike with impunity could embolden India. However, the Pakistani security establishment was also facing pressure against its active hand in shaping the country’s political developments, especially since the collapse of the government in 2022.

Thus, the following day, the Pakistan Army and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) undertook ‘Operation Marg Bar Sarmachar.’ Pakistan said it undertook an “intelligence-based” operation using drones, stand-off range weapons, and guided artillery rockets in Iran’s Balochistan-Sistan province.

Interestingly, both Iran and Pakistan got what they needed from the otherwise abnormal episode – a chance to demonstrate regional influence. Iran showed it could exert reach across its multiple fronts, and Pakistan became one of only two countries to engage in strikes on Iranian territory since the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. So, how will Islamabad and Tehran proceed from this point?


Neither side can afford an escalatory stance, especially over the long-term. If Pakistan began treating Iran as a threat to its territorial integrity, it would need to allocate a significant conventional military and, potentially, strategic retaliatory presence on its southwestern front. However, this move would, without any doubt, force Pakistan to divide its focus and resources between India and Iran, thereby weakening its ability to maintain a credible conventional position against India.

Likewise, Iran cannot afford to have Pakistan has a foe. Unlike its other neighbours, Pakistan has the unique capability mix of a strong conventional military, credible nuclear element, and – not least – a longstanding experience with both using and neutralizing proxy warfare tools. In some ways, it could fight in a similar fashion to Iran, and in others, act in ways Iran cannot (e.g., conventional capabilities on land, sea, and air, and, if necessary, nuclear deployment).

Finally, there are key external players who would prefer avoiding an Iranian-Pakistani conflict, namely China, Russia, and, interestingly, the United States. Both China and Russia treat Iran and Pakistan as their key markets, defence partners, and, possibly, buffers against other foes (e.g., China leaning on Pakistan to detract India from focusing on the Pacific). The U.S., however, may be less obvious. But it has an interest in resolving conflicts and dampening tensions in the Middle East so that it could make a full move to focusing on China in East Asia.

Thus, not a single stakeholder in this mix benefits at any level from a conflict. Rather, moving forward, Iran and Pakistan will likely return to their pre-January condition. Though Tehran and Islamabad had voiced the need to collaborate on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency matters, it is unlikely for them to work beyond exercises, training, and limited intelligence-sharing. While its defence relations with the U.S. have cooled, Pakistan is still better connected to Washington than Tehran. It still needs the U.S. for economic support, thus, it will unlikely take steps that could lead to further skepticism of its commitment of U.S. interests. Likewise, Iran may be weary of Pakistan due to the latter’s links to the U.S., thus the two countries will still maintain some distance, politically speaking.

An Unforgettable Episode

Though Pakistan will de-escalate current tensions with Iran, it would be wise to not overlook or forget about this episode. The strikes show that Pakistan cannot take any of its neighbours for granted; there is always a genuine risk of an unexpected, unprovoked attack.

Practically, while costly, Pakistan should start planning for an expanded conventional presence in its southwestern front. It need not be a multi-spectrum air, land, and sea capability akin to the East, but some areas now need additional investment.

Pakistan may need to expand its integrated air defence system (IADS) to provide a robust, multi-layered element near Iran, for example. It could also look to station for stand-off strike systems as a deterrent, from land-based guided rockets to, potentially, aerial platforms, like air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) from fighters and/or drones. Given Iran’s interest in using the Balochi separatist issue as a pretext to cross a border, Pakistan may need to build its air assault capabilities so that it can quickly react to an intrusion with troops (alongside air and guided artillery assets).

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