Last week, Pakistan and Iran fired missiles on militant camps in each other’s territories. Both nations justified their actions, stating that the other country had failed to act against these rebel groups despite attacks on each other’s security forces.
The current case is intriguing because Tehran’s attack in Pakistan was not unprecedented.
Unlike the Line of Control that divides India and Pakistan, or the Durand Line separating Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pakistan-Iran border features no dispute between Islamabad and Tehran. Nevertheless, Iran’s security forces have regularly violated Pakistan’s border and airspace by attacking civilians and militants.
It was reportedly in 2013 that Iran broke with its previous tradition of limited cross-border strikes on illegal border infiltrators by launching rockets on the Sunni extremist group Jaish-ul-Adl in Pakistan’s Balochistan. The strike was retaliation for the group’s killing of 15 Iranian border guards.
At the time, only Balochistan’s chief minister criticized the attack. He urged then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government to address the border violation with Tehran.
In the same week, however, Pakistan was injecting a fresh impetus to the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and expressed satisfaction over the amicable ties between the two countries.
In February 2014, when Jaish-ul-Adl kidnapped Iranian border guards, Iran threatened to send forces if Pakistan took no action. Islamabad cautioned Iran against such “negligence and violation of international law” and emphasized cooperation. They signed an agreement in 2015 for coordinated action against terrorism.
Nonetheless, in 2017, after Jaish-ul-Adl killed 10 Iranian border guards, Iran’s army chief threatened to strike militant camps in Pakistan. Islamabad’s only response was that it would strengthen border security and take action against the insurgent group.
This recent history shows that Iran has frequently launched or threatened to launch cross-border strikes, often killing civilians or alleged militants, with Pakistan only rarely protesting diplomatically.
Thus Tehran might well have viewed its recent strikes as a routine action in response to insurgent attacks on Iranian security forces. Pakistan’s strong condemnation and retaliation by bombing Baloch insurgents’ outposts in Iran would have come as a surprise.
There are various explanations for why Pakistan considered it necessary to retaliate militarily this time.
Iran’s strike in Pakistan was reported as part of a series of its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Since Tehran had fired missiles at targets in those countries without facing any military response, it only saw fit to do the same in Pakistan, given the history of similar unreciprocated strikes in the past.
But Tehran clearly misjudged the geopolitical situation surrounding Pakistan.
The entire world had its eyes on Iran’s security responses to Israel’s cyberattacks and involvement in the killing of a top Iranian commander, and the January terrorist attack near Qassem Soleimani’s mausoleum that killed over 90. These incidents raised questions about Tehran’s intelligence and security capabilities.
This may explain why Iran made the unwise move of making public statements after conducting strikes in Pakistan. Iran’s official news agencies published stories about the attack. Later, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian bluntly stated at the World Economic Forum in Davos that Tehran didn’t allow its national security to be compromised, and that Iran had no reservations about attacking terrorist groups inside Pakistan to defend its national interest.
So, the unprecedented nature of Iran’s action was arguably not its use of missiles, but that Tehran counted Pakistan as on the list of countries that it can bomb at will and ridicule publicly, all without consequence.
This was just one factor influencing Pakistan’s response. Adding fuel to the situation, India’s External Affairs Ministry expressed support for Iran’s defensive strikes against terrorist camps.
In fact, Islamabad had encountered a similar situation in 2019 when India raided an alleged militant camp in Balakot, Pakistan. The next day, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) retaliated, resulting in a dogfight with the Indian Air Force. This resulted in the PAF’s downing of an Indian fighter jet and capture of a pilot.
Later, Pakistan named its retaliatory strategy Quid Pro Quo-Plus, signifying a measured yet disproportionate response designed to deter adversaries from repeating their limited cross-border strikes. The success of Pakistan’s retaliatory strategy against India likely influenced its confidence in handling the situation with Iran and could as well become a template for similar future scenarios.
Iran’s attack used four missiles and drones to target a couple of houses. In response, Pakistan used “killer drones, rockets, loitering munitions, and standoff weapons” on seven targets in Iran. The unspecified standoff weapons could be Ra’ad missiles, launched from Mirage-III or JF-17 fighter aircraft.
Pakistan clarified that its strikes specifically targeted Pakistani separatists, steering clear of Iranian security forces or facilities involved in the attack and the violation of Pakistan’s airspace. The purpose was to create deterrence while leaving a path for de-escalation.
Another aim of Pakistan’s strategists was likely to bolster the country’s security role in the region.
New Delhi is expanding its security footprint in the western Indian Ocean region to take over the role that Pakistan’s military has played traditionally. While Pakistan hasn’t explicitly defined its position in the U.S.-led multilateral campaign against Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, India deployed its warships to the region and engaged with the Arab countries and Iran on regional security issues.
But Pakistan got an opportunity to demonstrate its military power in response to Iran’s “unprovoked and illegal” attacks. As Asfandyar Mir of the U.S. Institute of Peace noted, Pakistan breached Tehran’s deterrence bubble against external attacks on its soil. Israel and the United States might now feel less deterred from striking targets in Iran.
Arab countries, Turkey, and the United States may now consider Pakistan’s importance differently in their regional strategic calculations.
All things considered, Pakistan’s military response was likely triggered by Iran’s publicized airstrikes, which portrayed Pakistan as a country whose sovereignty could be violated without expecting consequences. This compelled Pakistan to follow its previously successful pattern of responding in kind, with a bit extra.
Going forward, Pakistan may not respond similarly if Iran were to strike rebel groups in Pakistan without bragging about it. In other words, Iran could conduct similar strikes and keep them under wraps. The effectiveness of Pakistan’s deterrence against Iran hinges on its unwillingness to tolerate any attacks violating its sovereignty, a point that remains uncertain based on historical patterns.