The Platform

U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq in 2018.

As long as the war in Gaza continues the region will continue to spiral towards open conflict.

The war in Gaza erupted following an offensive by Hamas militants against Israel on October 7, which resulted in 1,200 fatalities. The subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza has led to over 26,000 Palestinian deaths. Conflicts such as these often have unintended consequences, and the Israel-Gaza conflict has been no exception. A subsequent conflict between Pakistan and Iran was swiftly de-escalated by both countries after a series of tit-for-tat missile exchanges in mid-January. Although Pakistan and Iran acted promptly to reduce tensions, their bilateral ties have nonetheless incurred damage.

Despite having amicable relations on the surface, Pakistan and Iran are mired in underlying tensions due to a long-standing mutual recrimination over the support of insurgent groups within their respective border regions. The two countries are divided by a 560-mile border, known for its lawlessness, across which smugglers and militants transit with ease. Pakistan accuses Iran of providing refuge to Baloch terrorist groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), while Iran levies similar accusations against Pakistan, alleging it shelters Sunni terrorist factions like Jaish ul-Adl. Both nations have previously attempted to minimize the perception of these threats, yet the border regions continue to grapple with a low-level insurgency fueled by Baluch nationalists, an issue that has persisted for more than two decades.

The reaction from Pakistan was anticipated, given the country’s recent devastating experiences with terrorism. The military leadership, now exerting absolute control over the country, is determined to address the issue decisively. Significantly, the Pakistan military has taken a dual stance—projecting both responsibility and strength in safeguarding national security, leading to a swift retaliatory response to Iran’s aggression, which is perceived to be linked to certain acts of terrorism within Pakistan. 2023 alone witnessed 1,524 deaths and 1,463 injuries in Pakistan as a result of as many as 789 terrorist incidents and counter-terrorism operations.

The Centre for Research and Security Studies released its annual security report last month, noting an alarming increase in fatalities among civilians and security personnel—marking a six-year high and the most substantial since 2017. Additionally, Pakistan has seen an escalation in violence for the third consecutive year, with a discernible increase each year starting in 2021. This uptick in violence was exemplified by a recent attack on January 30 by BLA separatists, which resulted in the death of a police officer and injuries to a dozen others in Balochistan. This attack, which also resulted in the death of six BLA militants, was seemingly in retaliation for Pakistani strikes on BLA enclaves in Iran.

Both nations swiftly engaged in damage control, with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani inviting his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Pakistan. During his visit, Abdollahian confirmed that there is “no doubt” that militants in the border areas of both Pakistan and Iran receive aid and are directed by external actors.

Remarkably, Abdollahian highlighted the suspected involvement of third-party actors in supporting terrorists along the shared border of Iran and Pakistan. He revealed that both parties concurred on immediate actions to bolster border security, the imperative of counter-terrorism efforts, and the enhancement of trade, commercial, and economic cooperation. Consequently, Pakistan and Iran have committed to fostering the shared objectives of peace and prosperity, grounded in mutual respect and a collaborative approach to tackling common challenges.

In repairing the damaged bilateral relations, both Iran and Pakistan are displaying a sense of urgency. Meanwhile, China is poised to further encourage reconciliation between the two nations.

The Iranian strikes on Pakistan were largely driven by internal political pressures, compelling the Iranian regime to act. The recent assassination of Brigadier General Razi Mousavi in Syria and the bombings at a memorial for General Qassem Soleimani, which claimed a hundred lives, impelled the regime to seek retribution. The Iranian offensive in Pakistan was not an isolated event; it was preceded by strikes in Iraq and Syria.

These military actions by Iran demonstrate the country’s military prowess and determination to assert its influence not only on Israel, the United States, and their allies but also on Iranian regional proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and militias in Syria, Iraq, and the Houthi movement in Yemen. The Iranian attack on Pakistan should be understood within the broader context of Middle Eastern dynamics and the strains emerging from the Gaza-Israel conflict. Both Iran and Pakistan are keen on maintaining amicable relations and managing their shared border challenges with care.

On January 28, a drone assault orchestrated by Iranian-backed militants struck Jordan, claiming the lives of three American soldiers and injuring over 40. This incident signals a significant intensification in the ongoing strife sweeping across the Middle East.

American forces have found themselves under attack more than 160 times in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Additionally, Houthi insurgents in Yemen have been launching drone and missile strikes against American naval vessels navigating the Red Sea.

In a reprisal to these previous provocations, the United States has already launched counterstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The recent attack in Jordan bears the signature tactics of Kata’ib Hezbollah, a militia with Iranian allegiance. The United States, however, has stopped short of issuing a definitive judgment.

Iran has publicly stated that its affiliated regional militias have the autonomy to counteract American forces at will.

Experts, with a consensus of accuracy, warn that American offensives against Iran might compel a forceful Iranian retaliation, potentially dragging the United States into a new protracted conflict in the Middle East.

The impending U.S. elections in November place additional pressure on the Biden administration to formulate a response to the Jordanian incident. Any action taken by the United States is expected to exacerbate the situation, possibly sparking a more extensive conflict in the region.

An imminent American countermove will likely provoke a swift reaction from Iran. Despite the mutual hostility between both Israel and the United States, Iran is anticipated to navigate these tensions indirectly to maintain its standing, continuing to bolster its proxies without engaging in a direct confrontation—a strategy to avoid a potential downfall.

Recent Iranian aggressions, culminating in the deadly strike in Jordan, underscore the volatile nature of the aftermath of the Israel-Gaza war. The risk of the conflict spilling over and escalating beyond current flashpoints is a growing concern.

Despite regional and international efforts to prevent a full-scale war, the intricate web of alliances and animosities in the Middle East suggests that instability is likely to persist.

The resolution to this burgeoning instability hinges on a cessation of the Israel-Gaza conflict and progress toward a two-state solution that includes an independent Palestine. Yet, with no tangible progress towards this goal and the evident hesitance of both Israeli and American leadership, the prospect remains elusive. Consequently, the protracted Palestinian-Israeli dispute will likely continue to fuel wider regional conflicts, embedding the Middle East in a perpetual state of turmoil and endangering global peace.

Sohail Mahmood is an independent political analyst focused on global politics, U.S. foreign policy, governance, and the politics of South and West Asia.