In just one week, Iran carried out airstrikes in three states. Under the pretext of eliminating anti-Iran elements, it conducted strikes in Syria and Iraq on January 15. Then, on January 16, Iran extended its military operations into Pakistani territory, asserting the destruction of bases affiliated with Jaish al-Adl (JAA) during airstrikes in Balochistan. It is worth noting that Iran is currently involved in a shadow fight against its arch-adversary, Israel; however, no Israelis were killed in these strikes. The stark reality is that it was only the Muslims who died.
The attack on Pakistan took the country by surprise as both sides enjoyed cordial ties and all lines of communication were open between both sides. The day Iran struck Pakistani territory, its Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Pakistan’s Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar were in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum (WEF) session, and had met on the sidelines. Despite the friendly ties between the two sides, Pakistan’s sovereignty was violated.
In the aftermath of the attack, Pakistan allowed Iran to clarify its position. While Iran had carried out a drastic measure, Pakistan initially resorted to diplomatic options. In the first stage, it recalled its ambassador to Iran and prevented the Iranian envoy, who was in Tehran, from returning to Islamabad, giving Iran the time to apologise for the violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. The Foreign Office (FO) also asserted Pakistan’s “right to respond to this illegal act”, attributing the sole responsibility to Iran.
Instead, Iran issued an unacceptable statement, signifying its intent to violate Pakistan’s airspace. The Iranian Foreign Minister claimed that the strikes exclusively targeted “Iranian terrorists on the soil of Pakistan”, and no civilians were killed. However, two children died in the unprovoked and illegal attack and three others were injured.
Seeing the unapologetic stance of Iran, Pakistan decided to retaliate with proper might to give a clear message that such measures would not be accepted. Subsequently, the Government of Pakistan activated the armed forces to prepare a proper response.
Normally, services do not have plans ready to attack a friendly country, and considering the relationship that Pakistan and Iran enjoyed, Pakistan had to prepare a response, unlike the one which was available in February 2019. Subsequently, under Operation Marg Bar Sarmachar, PAF carried out precision strikes in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, targeting Baloch dissident groups. During the attacks, maximum care was taken to avoid collateral damage. Reportedly, nine militants were killed in the airstrikes, which targeted hideouts used by notorious terrorists involved in activities against Pakistan.
These strikes were conducted successfully through Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft using stand-off munitions and through unmanned aerial systems, staying within the Pakistani airspace. Multiple targets were attacked at different locations, which were at varying depths from the border. The Government of Iran had been made aware of these terrorist activities for quite some time, but they refused to cooperate in joint investigation and action. Not to forget Indian involvement when Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was operating from Iranian territory, was captured. Going by a conspiracy theory, what was the Indian Foreign Minister doing in Iran on 15 January?
The full credit for this response goes to the PAF and its leadership, which responded most professionally and the entire nation lauds it for its swift retaliatory strike on short notice. This gave the Iranians, alongside those who have evil designs for Pakistan, a clear message that Pakistan would not tolerate any violation of its territorial integrity and the PAF is always there to safeguard the country’s aerial frontiers.
However, what took place during the past few days is not a good omen for the region, and for the Muslim Ummah. The timing was wrong, just as the region remains embroiled in tensions due to the escalating Israel-Hamas conflict. With Pakistan having retaliated against the breach of its territorial sovereignty and won militarily, now the sanest thing to do would be to sit down and resolve the matter amicably. If there is a trust deficit between the two sides, a mediator can be engaged. China, while calling on both sides to exercise restraint, had already offered its services, and so did Turkey. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also expressed profound concern and offered mediation to alleviate tensions in the region.
Moreover, positive signals are coming from both sides, indicating that the ice is melting, and the reality is becoming clear. A review of the statements of both Pakistan and Iran, after their respective strikes, hints at a desire to not let things escalate. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson called Iran a “brotherly country”, and emphasised the need to find “joint solutions”. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also called Pakistan a “friendly country”, and said that its strikes were proportionate and only aimed at militants. It is important that Pakistan and Iran maintain their ties and find a balance if there are any apprehensions.
The PAF’s response to the violation of Pakistan’s airspace and sovereignty is a testament to its operational preparedness and the credit goes to the courageous leadership of the Pakistan Armed Forces for giving a befitting rebuttal to Iranian actions. Well done, Pakistan Air Force!
Air Marshal Asim Suleiman (Retd) is President at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore