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Why did Pakistan and Iran trade strikes?

Jan 19

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Pakistan and Iran both launched strikes into each other’s territory in the week of Jan. 15. Neither country appears to want a war with the other, but in a region where military might is the most common form of diplomacy, the tension could still boil over.

Iran and Pakistan are making the same argument: The other side is providing a haven to Baloch militant groups who want to create their own country. Iran and Pakistan share a 560-mile border, where a region known as Balochistan exists. The border between the two nations is predominantly lawless, with militants and drug runners crossing frequently.

On Tuesday, Jan. 16, Iran struck who it said were Baloch militants operating in Pakistan. Two people were killed. On Thursday, Jan. 18, Pakistan retaliated by striking who it said were also Baloch militants operating in Iran. Nine people were killed.

Pakistan and Iran were both mad at the other for launching the strikes but are now trying to navigate a plan of action that won’t lead to direct conflict.

Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, a spokesperson for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, said the strikes were based on credible intelligence and took out terrorists, making it clear the actions weren’t directed against Tehran.

“Iran is a brotherly country,” Baloch said, “And the people of Pakistan have great respect and affection for the people of Iran.”

The strikes aren’t happening in a vacuum. Iran’s regime is under pressure to stand tough against internal attacks by militant groups. In addition to the strikes into Pakistan, Iran launched air assaults against targets in Iraq and Syria. Iran said it targeted ISIS militants responsible for two attacks during a memorial for Qasem Soleimani. More than 100 people were killed and dozens more were wounded in the twin bombings. The memorial marked the four-year anniversary of Soleimani’s killing by a U.S. drone strike.

Iran is also trying to project its power in the Middle East so the militant groups it supports — such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis — keep doing Tehran’s bidding. Iran wants those groups to keep up the pressure against Israeli forces in Gaza while also attacking commercial shipping and naval vessels in the Red Sea.

On the other side of the border, Pakistan’s military would be seen as soft if it let Iran’s initial strike go unchecked. The military holds a lot of political sway in Pakistan and can’t afford to be seen as weak — especially not with a general election coming up in February.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan also can’t afford to look weak in front of nuclear-armed India. The two countries have a complex relationship and tensions between the two are always kept at a slight simmer.

As far as what happens next, both the United States and China are urging restraint in the region, but there’s no guarantee either side will back down if their defenses are tested again. And for their part, elements within the Baloch militant groups vowed to avenge the deaths of those killed in this week’s strikes and keep waging war.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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[RYAN ROBERTSON]

PAKISTAN AND IRAN BOTH LAUNCHED STRIKES INTO EACH OTHER’S TERRITORY THIS WEEK. NEITHER COUNTRY REALLY WANTS A WAR WITH THE OTHER, BUT IN A REGION WHERE MILITARY MIGHT IS THE MOST COMMON FORM OF DIPLOMACY THE TENSION COULD STILL BOIL OVER.

IRAN AND PAKISTAN ARE MAKING THE SAME ARGUMENT: THE OTHER SIDE IS PROVIDING A HAVEN TO BALOCH MILITANT GROUPS WHO WANT TO CREATE THEIR OWN COUNTRY.

ON TUESDAY, IRAN STRUCK WHO IT SAID WERE BALUCH MILITANTS OPERATING IN PAKISTAN. TWO PEOPLE WERE KILLED. ON THURSDAY PAKISTAN RETALIATED BY STRIKING WHO IT SAID WERE ALSO BALOCH MILITANTS OPERATING IN IRAN. NINE PEOPLE WERE KILLED.

PAKISTAN AND IRAN WERE BOTH MAD AT THE OTHER FOR LAUNCHING THE STRIKES, BUT ARE TRYING TO NOW NAVIGATE A WAY THROUGH THAT DOESN’T LEAD TO DIRECT CONFLICT.

A SPOKESPERSON FOR PAKISTAN’S FOREIGN MINISTRY SAID THE STRIKES WERE BASED ON CREDIBLE INTELLIGENCE AND TOOK OUT TERRORISTS, MAKING IT CLEAR THE ACTIONS WEREN’T DIRECTED AGAINST TEHRAN.

Mumtaz Zahra Baloch:

Iran is a brotherly country. And the people of Pakistan have great respect and affection for the people of Iran.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

THE STRIKES AREN’T HAPPENING IN A VACCUUM. IRAN’S REGIME IS UNDER PRESSURE TO STAND TOUGH AGAINST INTERNAL ATTACKS BY MILITANT GROUPS, WHICH WAS THE EXPLANATION FOR IRAN’S STRIKES INTO IRAQ AND SYRIA THIS WEEK.

IRONICALLY, IRAN IS ALSO TRYING TO PROJECT ITS POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST SO THE MILITANT GROUPS IT SUPPORTS–LIKE HAMAS, HEZBOLLAH AND THE HOUTHIS–KEEP DOING TEHRAN’S BIDDING.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BORDER, PAKISTAN’S MILITARY WOULD BE SEEN AS SOFT IF IT LET IRAN’S INITIAL STRIKE GO UNCHECKED. THE MILITARY HOLDS A LOT OF POLITICAL SWAY IN PAKISTAN AND CAN’T AFFORD TO BE SEEN AS WEEK. NOT WITH A GENERAL ELECTION COMING UP IN FEBRUARY.

NUCLEAR-ARMED PAKISTAN ALSO CAN’T AFFORD TO LOOK WEAK IN FRONT OF NUCLEAR-ARMED INDIA. THE TWO COUNTRIES GENERALLY HATE THE OTHER AND TENSIONS BETWEEN THE TWO ARE ALWAYS KEPT AT A SLIGHT SIMMER.

AS FAR AS WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, WELL, FOR ONCE THE U.S. AND CHINA AGREE ON SOMETHING. BOTH NATIONS ARE URGING RESTRAINT IN THE REGION, BUT THERE’S NO GUARANTEE EITHER SIDE WILL BACK DOWN IF THEIR DEFENSES ARE TESTED AGAIN.