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Pak- Iran Heightened Stakes And Diminishing Trust

The Iranian missile strikes were abrupt and unexpected, catching many in shock and disbelief. This is because the customary indicators that typically precede military actions, such as aggressive statements, explicit threats, or diplomatic warnings, were absent. Going by the rhetoric, the direction of Iranian missiles should have been westward, but their eastward employment was beyond comprehension. Following the strikes by both sides, Iran-Pakistan bilateral relations are witnessing a palpable erosion of trust.

Relations between Pakistan and Iran have remained ‘lukewarm’, characterised by a measured level of engagement. For decades, each nation has accused the other of providing safe havens or overlooking the terrorists/ insurgents’ activities.

The million-dollar question is why Iran would carry out a ‘drone and missile strike’ at a time when it faces intricate geopolitical challenges surrounding nations like Palestine, Syria, and Yemen—regions where Iran holds substantial geostrategic interests. Also, the attack comes at a time when the US had already escalated its military presence in the Gulf. The timing of the Indian Foreign Minister’s visit to Iran on 14-15 January 2024, just before the strike, is conspicuous from Pakistan’s lens.

Iran’s claim that the attack was in response to the Jaish al-Adl attacks on the Iranian city of Rask is hard to digest. What strategic objectives were achieved by the Iranian strike: two dead children and three injured persons? Even if it meant strategic messaging, could a single strike put pressure on Pakistan to commit to a cleansing operation against wanted groups? On the contrary, the insane Iranian strike has added another country to the list of its rivals, has dented its image in the already sceptical Gulf region, and has further strengthened the US mantra of labelling Iran as an irresponsible nation. But then, Iranians are neither naive nor impulsive. It has intelligent leadership with enough prudence to undertake such extreme action only if the strategic dividend is higher than losing a neighbour, if not a friend.

This is why there remains some haze and suspicion on the Iranian decision to strike and the nature of the target that got struck. Either there was a compelling reason, which remains obscure, or else it was a strategic miscalculation of a grave nature that may have been undertaken by a hardliner faction from within the state, which at the moment seems more likely to be the case.
Pakistan’s response was apt and necessary, coming both in the diplomatic and military realms. Operation “Marg Bar Sarmachar” was undertaken slightly over 24 hours after the Iranian strikes. Pakistan had an easy option to cool the temperature and restrain any action. This option could have been exercised if some immediate gesture ‘close to regret’ was displayed by Iranians, which sadly did not happen.

Consequently, the strategic response undertaken by Pakistan served as a resolute affirmation to the global community that Pakistan remains unwavering in its commitment to defending its sovereignty. Operation “Marg Bar Sarmachar” was executed exceptionally by the Pakistan Armed Forces, particularly the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The swift decision-making, attack precision, expert use of contemporary technology, and intelligence accuracy deserve full appreciation. This operation underscores the nation’s resolve to counteract aggression effectively.

The Iranian restraint to the Pakistan offensive displays statesmanship and acumen. Acknowledging that Pakistan struck “non-Iranian citizens in the villages on the border of the two countries” signals a retreat towards peace, which is in the interest of both sides. Whether it was Iran’s self-derived rationality, the result of a bilateral dialogue, or the benevolent intervention of a third party, it has effectively averted a potentially hazardous escalation. However, it is essential to acknowledge that complete restoration from the incurred damage may take some time. Unfortunately, these strikes have presented adversaries with an avenue to exploit in the future.

There is a risk of exacerbating tensions by manipulating terrorist activities through harboured proxies or by fuelling sectarian divides. Therefore, there is a need for a comprehensive dialogue at the highest level to restore a state of absolute normalcy. The time has come to address each other grievances and take concrete measures against alleged anti-state groups, may be through some joint action forum. Both countries should dispel this impression that their land is being used against the other, especially at the behest of a third country.

Iran and Pakistan confront many national security challenges, underscoring the pressing need to safeguard regional stability and security. There are substantial common interests between the two nations that can orchestrate a collective bright future for both countries.

AVM M Z Faisal (Retd) is the Director of Warfare and Aerospace at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore, Pakistan.