The Pakistan Air Force struck militant targets in neighboring Iran on Thursday morning local time, according to a statement by the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The development comes roughly a day after Iran conducted air strikes inside Pakistani territory.
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement says the country’s military “undertook a series of highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes against terrorist hideouts.”
What Targets Did Pakistan Strike in Iran?
The Pakistani military says it hit the “hideouts” of two militant groups based in Iran: the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).
The BLA and BLF are ethnic Baloch separatist groups that seek the independence of Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
The Baloch are an ethno-linguistic community spread across Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan — with a sizeable diaspora in the Arab Gulf and East Africa. For decades, disaffected ethnic Baloch militants have waged violent insurgencies in Iran and Pakistan. The insurgency in predominantly Shia Iran has been led by Sunni extremist groups, while in Pakistan, the movement has largely been secular.
An Iran-Pakistan Tit for Tat
Pakistan and Iran have traded accusations of harboring and supporting Baloch militants that target their respective countries.
On Tuesday, Pakistan expelled Iran’s ambassador in Islamabad and called Tehran’s attacks an “egregious violation of international law and [the] spirit of bilateral relations.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum that Iran respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of “brotherly” Pakistan and emphasized that Iran only targeted its own nationals inside Pakistan’s territory. Pakistan has done the same inside Iran.
Even the Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement released after Thursday’s retaliatory strikes mirrored the Iranian foreign minister’s language, stating that Pakistan “respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Iran and regards it as a “brotherly country.”
Shortly after news of Pakistan’s reprisal attacks broke, Kamran Khan, a Pakistani journalist seen as close to the country’s military, tweeted: “The promise was fulfilled. Iran has received an answer in its own language.”
The question now is will the two countries see their scores as having been settled or has a new, potentially escalatory, tit-for-tat dynamic emerged along Iran’s southeastern border.
If it is the latter, then it can be said that the war in the Middle East is now spreading into South Asia.
De-Escalation and the IRGC Role
A statement released on Thursday by Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to Pakistan’s retaliatory strikes, however, appears to indicate a desire to de-escalate. It frames Iran’s strikes in Pakistan as “a preventative action” against an “imminent” threat and makes no threat of a military response to Islamabad’s retaliation. In other words, Tuesday’s attacks by Iran in Pakistan could be a one-off event and this crisis may quickly defuse.
What is unclear is the role of the different actors within Iran’s power structure in this crisis. The IRGC’s Quds Force — led by Gen. Esmail Qaani, a longtime South Asia hand — reportedly conducted the strikes in Pakistan. It may be the case that he pushed for an aggressive response and is now being outweighed by diplomats with cooler heads after clearly misreading how Pakistan would respond.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.