Written by Lt Gen (R) Tariq Khan 2:00 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Pakistan, Published Content

Examining Iran’s Missile Offensive Against Pakistan

Iran conducted missile strikes about 50 Kms deep into Pakistan on 16th January, 2024, striking Panjgur. The news was first broken on social media and then by the international press with a public statement made by Iran. Pakistan then retaliated within 48 hours and undertook a drone attack on Saravan in Iran along with other stand-off weapons and loitering munitions.
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Lt Gen (Rtd) Tariq Khan is a retired army officer who has served as the head of Pakistan’s Central Command.

Iran conducted missile strikes about 50 km deep into Pakistan on 16th January 2024, striking Panjgur. The Pakistani government took an unprecedented step of banning the media from visiting the area or covering the incident. The news was first broken on social media and then by the international press with a public statement made by Iran. An official statement was released only after it was apparent that everyone already knew what had happened and the clash between Pakistan and Iran could no longer be hidden.

Pakistan then retaliated within 48 hours and undertook a drone attack on Saravan in Iran along with other stand-off weapons and loitering munitions, etcetera. The current environment in Pakistan is one of censorship, media restrictions, suppression of speech, and secrecy, and as such there is a lot of suspicion in the minds of the people, while rumors, conspiracies, and intrigues ruling perceptions are leading to all kinds of fake, perceived or even, at times, partially real, conclusions.  

To examine the incident, it is pertinent to look at the few facts as we know them to be. To start with, the Pakistan-Iran border has had its fair share of skirmishes and as such, this particular incident, is nothing out of the ordinary, if seen in that context. However, when Iran strikes Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan in the same breath, then the Iranian attack takes on a different connotation under the overall international prevailing environment as it stands today.

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It equates Pakistan with Iraq and Syria who are currently critical spaces in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It brings the Palestinian war to the borders of Pakistan for no apparent reason and without a clear Pakistani position taken on the conflict.

Turbulent History of the Pakistan-Iran Border

A history of Pak-Iran animosity over only the last decade is illustrated below to showcase the volatile situation that already exists along the border. Incidents recorded since 2014 with 5 Iranian border guards that were abducted and allegedly brought into Pakistan. In May of the same year, Iranian Guards shot and killed Pakistani citizens near Panjgur well within Pakistani territory. In October of the same year, an FC vehicle was attacked by the Iranian Border Guards killing an FC man. In December, Iran fired 42 rockets into Kech.

In 2015, Iran fired mortar shells into the Saboor area of the Panjgur district. In 2017, it was claimed that Jiash al-Adl had killed 10 Iranian Border Guards. In the same year, Iran warned Pakistan that it would hit bases in Pakistan if measures were not taken to contain cross-border terrorism and Iran proceeded to conduct a mortar attack on Talap in Chagai District. In the same year, Pakistan also downed an Iranian UAV in Panjgur.

In 2018, Iran lost 3 personnel in an attack on Mirjaveh, while the Iranians shot dead 2 Pakistanis and detained 5 more for an illegal border crossing. In October of the same year, 12 Iranian intelligence officials were kidnapped from Mirjaveh, claimed by Jaish al-Adl, later recovered by Pakistani forces from Lulakaden near the border. Later in the year, a suicide car bomb in Chabahar claimed 4 lives and injured 42. Pakistan was indirectly accused of backing the terrorists.

In February 2021, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed that they had rescued 2 kidnapped Iranian guards from inside Pakistan through an intelligence-based operation. Pakistan lost an FC soldier to cross-border firing in late 2021. In January 2023, Pakistan claimed to have lost 4 soldiers to an attack by militants who had used Iranian soil to mount the attack. A similar attack took place in April in Jagal claiming another 4 Pakistani soldiers while in June of the same year, 2 more Pakistani soldiers were killed in the Kech district near the border.

Last December, 11 Iranian Guards were killed in an attack by Jaish al-Adl in Rask; Pakistan promised to help Iran in containing the scourge of terrorism. The border skirmishes and clashes finally led to Iran’s missile strike on Panjgur and subsequently Pakistan’s retaliation.

If both governments remain indifferent towards the other’s apprehensions, as they have been in the past, these border incidents may even increase as hostile groups exploit the vacuum in these areas, creating their independent fiefdoms, and generating local revenue through illegal activities. Thus bilateral suspicions and apprehensions may never be addressed but instead become a source and a method to exploiting this lack of respective sovereignty and autonomous rule – leading to further lawlessness, smuggling, militancy, etcetera, and the gradual expansion of ungoverned spaces.

The relationship of both countries would be driven more by incident-related events than routine diplomacy. Incidents mostly engineered by outsiders through non-state actors/dissidents and aggrieved communities would impact negatively on the bilateral relationship, thus promoting regional instability and insecurity. Both governments, hostage to domestic politics driven by a mob-lynching mentality, would succumb to their respective public demands.

When such a mob mentality is further reinforced by a third party, and deliberately directed hostile propaganda, it would only add fuel to the fire, ensuring that the relationship between Pakistan and Iran, never normalises. It is not too difficult to determine which countries have a preference to keep the region embroiled in conflict and instability.

The situation is further aggravated because of the nature of an already hostile sectarian divide between both countries, where the social order, is heavily influenced by the Sunni-Shia factor. Such ideological animosities can be exploited to expand resentment and create mischief between both countries as well as in the region.

Role of Israel

Now the question is, why does this incident appear to be so important compared to all the other incidents that have taken place on the Pak-Iran border over time? First, the conflict in Gaza, with an unrestrained Israel perpetuating a remorseless genocide against the Palestinians, has begun to create ripples the world over. The resistance that is holding the Israelis into a stand-still war, Hamas, and Hezbollah, both are heavily supported by Iran, whereas Israel has unconditional, political, moral, and material support from the United States.

Since the United States is an ally of Israel in this conflict, it remains vulnerable to attacks in the Middle East by any group supporting the Palestinians – state or non-state actors. Thus, it is not surprising, that the United States, seen already as an occupying power and an unwelcome guest in the Middle East, has its installations and bases there, regularly subjected to such low-intensity attacks and missile strikes. Israel exploits these attacks and uses these as just cause and a casus belli to extend war to Iran.

The United States is not yet ready for a conventional all-out war with Iran at the moment, though it may well be sooner than later, at the behest of Israel. Yet for now, it is content in encouraging proxies to prosecute war into Iran ‘by other means’. The United States is suspected of providing intelligence, technical assistance, resources, and financial assistance to these proxy groups on behalf of Israel which, may even be coordinated by Israel, who may even be instrumental in planning, coordinating, and directing such activities against Iran. Iran, thus finds it has no other political or military option than to retaliate against these proxy groups, which are just a means to contain Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Israeli-organized, planned, and coordinated proxy attacks in Iran are intended to distract Iran till the Gaza conflict is over, after which Iran may be dealt with through a more conventional military option. As such, Iran responded to the murder of General Sayyed Razi Mousavi, killed by Israel in Syria in December 2023 as well as the 4th of January attack in Kerman on the death anniversary of General Qasem Soleimani. The Iranians targeted, what they claimed to be, Israeli intelligence and battle coordination centers and terrorist camps in Syria and Iraq. So how does Pakistan fit into this equation?  

Given the secrecy prevailing in almost all national matters, one is slightly lost trying to make sense of the Iranian missile attack – its reasoning, purpose, and effect. Therefore, some assumptions would have had to be made and examined for any probabilities and possibilities to come to any sensible conclusion. What comes to mind are the recent terrorist attacks in Iran, such as in December when 11 soldiers lost their lives in Rask to Jaish al-Adl and other similar incidents along the Pak-Iran border.

There is a strong probability that Iran feels that this group was being facilitated by the United States and Israel to pursue cross-border militancy from Pakistani soil. Pakistan was warned to contain these terrorists but with minimal effect just as nothing was ever done to curtail hostile activity emanating from Iran against Pak-Balochistan. It appears, and is a credible possibility, that the intelligence on both sides has retained an undercover capability against the other for a better bargaining position in any bilateral engagement – it is a kind of stupid game that all intelligence agencies play amongst themselves; the precedent already exists.

It is why, one stands committed to the conclusion that one has often voiced – Terrorism can only be contained if all intelligence agencies globally are reigned in – failing which, they will continue to compete with one another in perpetuating chaos, violence, and terrorism. They do this all in the name of their respective national interests. Being relatively autonomous and under no legal restraint, never subject to any inquiries, these intelligence agencies are the worst components of militancy, low-intensity conflicts, assassinations, murder, and wanton killing the world over.  

However, when the Pak-Iran border hostilities are measured in the context of the Houthi attacks on international shipping, resourced and equipped by Iran and the international Task Force 153 in response to it, the Pakistan Navy’s deployment in the Gulf of Aden becomes even more ominous for Iran. They may suspect that Pakistan is colluding with the United States, is soft on Israel, and is on the other side of the fence despite Pakistan’s categorical denial that it was not part of any task force and that it was only protecting its shipping lanes.

Perceptions are developed over theories that are manipulated, and with the Indians sitting in Chabahar, their influence over Iranian thinking cannot be ruled out. So there now exists a situation where Iran suspects Pakistan of supporting the United States in extending low-intensity conflict in Iran from Pakistani soil and where Pakistan feels that India is influencing matters against Pakistan with their heavy presence in Iran. In line with these assumptions, Iran probably felt that while dealing with Iraq and Syria, it may as well deal with Pakistan as well.

Iran was sending a message that it would not allow the United States and Israel to conduct proxy wars with neighboring countries and that Iran had the capacity and capability to handle such a threat on a multi-dimensional level in a multi-directional capacity. However, now reports are coming in from the Middle East, from one source or another that the attacks were undertaken with Pakistan’s permission, but that they were not supposed to be publicized and that the public announcement by Iran was a diplomatic faux pas.

Given the blanket media censorship and secrecy the Pakistani government had imposed on this incident at first, this version of the story may have some currency to it. It was only after it was well publicized by Iran that official acceptance of the incident was broadcast. Yet some quarters report that Iran was requested to admit to having made a mistake and to make a public apology for the violation and that Pakistan would be willing to forgive and forget. All would be well again between the two Islamic brotherly states and all could return to business as usual.

Iran reportedly refused to follow suit and instead stated that it was an event of national security on which they would never compromise and that if need be, they would do it again. This confirmed that it was a deliberate act that was directed at designated targets well within Pakistani territory. So regardless of all the explanations leading to the incident and those after it, it appears that Iran had grossly miscalculated and was led by a wild assumption that Pakistan would not or could not respond. Pakistan was thus forced to reciprocate and respond within 48 hours – the response was a precision strike, professionally executed, measured, and accurately applied.

India was the first to insinuate that Pakistan was responsible for terrorism in the region, and the United States blamed Iran for being reckless and irresponsible. Both were disappointed that the matter did not escalate and the Pak-Iran relationship was restored to the usual levels in a very short time. China and Russia both offered to mediate and expressed their desire for regional peace and stability.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his deep concern and called on both countries to exercise maximum restraint and avoid further escalation. These positions of various nations indicate who are one’s friends and who are one’s enemies – who were looking for escalation and who preferred regional peace.

Now the incident itself was a product of an illogical process, poorly thought through. Precedents from past military applications indicate that cross-border activity is never affected by missiles/airstrikes but can only be contained by boots on the ground. So what was Iran’s desired end-state in undertaking such an ill-thought-out adventure? It was possibly to flex muscles and show the world it could handle incidents across many borders simultaneously, and at will.

It was also a message to Pakistan, not to cooperate with the United States/Israel and facilitate cross-border attacks from its territory into Iran. Presently, it is still not clear why the incident was initiated, but for now, it can be concluded that it was a miscalculated step. Nevertheless, now that it happened, what are the consequences? First, Iran does not have an adequate early warning or an appropriate air defense system which would be a delight for the Israelis to learn about. It may even encourage Israel to undertake air strikes on Iran sooner rather than later.

Second, it also disappointed India which has been threatening to undertake another Balakot-styled incident where in this case, contrary to the last one, they come out on top. Pakistan’s timely response has probably established a deterrence towards such an adventure or projecting any such foolish venture in the immediate future. Third, it exposed how India and the United States (egged on by Israel) would like to keep the region destabilized and open to intrusion.

Fourth, and on Pakistan’s domestic front, the Balochistan Separatist Movement will take a hit and the establishment will get more space to move against the militants. Fifth, under the present circumstances, the military appears to have come out on top, where the huge image problem that the Armed Forces have been suffering from for some time has been partially addressed for now.

The public at large has come out in support of the Armed Forces and this must be capitalised upon by the military. Lastly, it may lead to internal sectarian military activity allowing an opportunity for the administration to effectively and efficiently eradicate this scourge permanently.

Now it is recognized that India can and does perpetuate terrorism against Pakistan from the Iranian territory (Kulbashan case) and the United States probably does facilitate militancy in support of militant groups in Pak-Balochistan operating against Iran. The unintended consequences of the exchange of munitions on both sides, by Pakistan and Iran, show how this allows freedom of action for both sides to circumvent legal aspects, human rights watch, and other regulatory bodies by striking in each other’s countries through coordinated operations.

A Potential Way Forward

The incident has brought to the forefront the notion of developing such a capability on a mutual basis. In this light, it is strongly recommended to initiate a process of a joint anti-terrorism/militancy force to overwatch the border region. The force is to be commanded by a Pakistani commander and then an Iranian one or vice versa, on a six-month rotational basis. The overall system should be tried out for a year for its efficacy and if found to be counter-productive, duly dismantled and disbanded. The force would be equally manned, funded, and equipped by both countries with a joint training center and an independent intelligence setup.

The joint headquarters would be fully autonomous, with total freedom of action and complete liberty of movement up to about 50 to 100 km parallel to the border within both countries. No government would be in a position to influence the force that would be working within the parameters of a mutually agreed mandate and defined limits/boundaries. Neither would it operate in prejudice to the existing law enforcement agencies, or the Armed Forces of either country. Militants also involved in criminal activity would be prioritised, as militants first and then as criminals for jurisdiction.

Deliberate effort and steps to be undertaken by either side to ensure that this Joint Agency established is not politicized and instead is facilitated to operate freely/independently against all hostile elements without mala-fide intent, favor, or partiality. The mandate would be open to review/reconsideration/improvements and updates after every 3 months or whenever so needed.

This could become a regional anti-terrorism concept and facility, which as an idea could expand to even bring in Afghanistan at a later stage – thus Pak-Iran-Afghan borders would be fully secured, manned, and regulated. This would enhance a better relationship between the three countries and remove the greatest reason for continual animosity: border-related disputes. It could open the doors for China and Central Asian countries to develop the concept as well. This is a suggestion that addresses the exploitation of one country against the other in the emotional, ideological, political, and security paradigm and it is the most workable method to manage borders mutually. It jointly impacts militancy/terrorism and insurgency, regardless of nationality, location, or sponsorship, making the non-state actor ineffective.

However, the one thing that will go against this recommendation or idea would be corrupt government officials and politicians in either country, who thrive on porous borders, facilitating smuggling, transporting illegal material, and human trafficking. These conduits developed for criminal purposes are also used by militants and are a means to facilitate terror financing.

If peace has to be established in these border regions and between these countries, then all such activities must stop. The author ends this analysis with the far-fetched hope, that somewhere at some someplace, a conscience comes to life and develops a mutually agreed concept. To prepare a joint plan for the lines suggested, with a view to helping both countries and others who may wish to be part of the arrangement, to co-exist in an atmosphere of trust and cooperation.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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