Iran and Pakistan: Another Flash Point


In an unexpected development, on 16 January 2024, Iran launched missiles into Pakistan’s, Baluchistan, aimed at Jaish al-Adl strongholds, Turbat & Panjgur. Jaish al-Adl, is a Sunni militant group operating in Sistan-Baluchistan. It is designated as a terrorist group.

Earlier on 03 January 2024, Iran suffered its worst domestic attack when two bombs killed 84 people at a ceremony in Kerman, being conducted in memory of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, General Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated by the US. In retaliation on 15 January Iran fired ballistic missiles at Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq and Syria. Iran said it was targeting Islamic State and Israel’s Mossad, both of whom, it said, had been involved in the Kerman bombings.

Pakistan was also quick to respond with “precise” military strikes with not only missiles but also fighter jets in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province. Iranian media reports, quoting state officials, said three women, four children, and two men killed in the attacks were “non-Iranians,” implying they could have been Pakistani nationals. Meanwhile Pakistan claimed that the attacks were launched to target the Baloch insurgent groups.

Though both countries agreed to de-escalate tensions after tit-for-tat military strikes on each other’s territory, the episode reveals a lack of trust between the neighbours that will continue to plague relations even after the missiles and accusations have subsided.

Jaish al-Adl

Pakistan and Iran have a delicate relationship specially along their 900 km long border. Jaish al-Adl was established in 2012 in the border regions of Pakistan and Iran. It mainly comprises of members of the Sunni militant Jundullah group, which was weakened after Iran executed its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, in 2011. It is widely believed that Mullah Omar Irani was one of its key founders. In its previous iteration as Jundallah, the group had pledged allegiance to ISIS.

The group came into the spotlight after a roadside bomb in Saravan killed thirteen Revolutionary Guards in October 2013. In response, for the first time, Iran fired a missile at Kulahu, the compound run by Mullah Omar Irani in Kech. Mullah Omar however, survived.

The cycle of violence has continued with the Jaish al-Adl, claiming responsibility for several attacks in recent years on Iranian Security Forces in Sistan-Baluchistan. Iran has, threatened military operations if Pakistan did not act against the group. There have been counter-complaints from Pakistan regarding Iranian security personnel crossing over into Pakistan.

Possible Reasons that Led to The Strike

There are a host of possible reasons regarding the strikes. One such theory is that the Jaish al Adl has been nurtured by the US and Israel. On 19 January a former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, Shamshad Ahmad Khan said in an interview with Mehr News Agency that the Jaish al-Adl, under the auspices of the United States, had carried out several operations in Iran. The US is targeting Iran because of Iran’s support for Palestine and using proxies like Jaish al-Adl.

Iran was pushed by internal pressure to retaliate as it needed to do something to boost the morale of its proxies in the Middle East. Moreover, attacking two countries simultaneously and not facing any retaliation may have emboldened Iran to attack Pakistan. Hence Iran chose to attack Pakistan to score a point, to reduce cross border activity on its eastern border and thereafter concentrate on the main battle.

The Iranian missile strike could also have been prompted by the attacks on Rask in December by Jaish al-Adl, in which eleven Iranian security personnel were killed.

Of course, there is also a view that both countries had stage managed the attacks and had warned each other in advance.

A Crisis Building up in the Region

Pakistan strongly condemned the unprovoked violation of its airspace by Iran, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that the strike inside Pakistani territory killed two children and injured three girls.

As per reports a missile hit a Mosque, partially damaging it, and injuring some people. In its statement, the ‘Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ said “the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is completely unacceptable and can have serious consequences “.

However, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, speaking in Davos, insisted that no Pakistani citizens had been targeted, “We only targeted Iranian terrorists on the soil of Pakistan.” He added that he had spoken to his Pakistani counterpart and assured him that we do respect sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan.

Nonetheless, Islamabad recalled its Ambassador to Iran and said that the Iranian Ambassador would not be allowed back into the country for the time being.

However, on 20 January, Pakistan’s government decided to end the tension with Iran and fully restore diplomatic ties with Tehran. The decision was taken by Pakistan’s Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar. Also, in a telephone conversation with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani said, “It’s crucial to actively pursue the axis of security and military cooperation that has been agreed upon and emphasized by both countries in the past.”

Talking Peace but Raining Missiles

Even as their leaders talk of peace, confrontations between terrorists and Security Forces are common along the Pakistan-Iran border, which often result in the loss of both Pakistani and Iranian personnel.

This latest strike coincided with a meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Anwaar ul Haq Kakar, the caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and also at a time when both navies were carrying out joint drills in the Gulf.

In July 2023 Pakistan Army Chief General Asim Munir’s visited Iran. He met the Iranian President and Foreign Minister, as well as Tehran’s military hierarchy. Border Security was a dominant theme during the visit.

As per an ISPR statement then, both sides “vowed to eradicate the menace of terrorism” along the common border by sharing intelligence and enhancing cooperation. This was the second high-level exchange between the leaderships of both countries, as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and President Ebrahim Raisi had met in May 2023, to inaugurate the Mand-Pishin ‘border sustenance market’.

However, the world changed after the 07 October attack by the Hamas in Israel. Iran’s proxies in the form of the three H’s, Hamas, Hezboullah and Houthi’s became hyper active thereafter.

On 15 December Jaish al-Adl attacked a Police Station in Rask, a town close to the border with Pakistan and killed eleven policemen. Soon after the attack, Iranian officials blamed weak Pakistani border control measures and claimed that militants had crossed from Pakistan to carry out the assault.

And now the latest 16 January attack and its retaliation.

Pakistan’s Dilemma

Tensions flare: Pakistanis chant slogans at a demonstration to condemn Iranian strikes on their country’s territory.

This strike was not the first time that Iranian forces had hit inside Pakistan. In 2017, the Pakistani Air Force had shot down an Iranian drone. In 2021, Iran rescued two Iranian soldiers who were being held hostage by Jaish al-Adl inside Pakistani territory. But these attacks have brought to light the fact that Iran is emboldened after the recent activities of their proxies in Israel, Lebanon, and Yemen. It is also emboldened by the fact that Pakistan has a caretaker government and the country is in turmoil.

As per reports the missiles were launched from Sirkan area of Iran. Retaliation by Pakistan required deliberation, given its own internal situation as also the risk of being drawn into a conflict with Iran. However, in what is seen as a face-saving measure Pakistan undertook highly coordinated precision military strikes that killed several terrorists in an Operation codenamed ‘Marg Bar Sarmachar’.

To quote Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani Ambassador to the US “If Pakistan hits back, it risks getting drawn into Middle East conflicts it has avoided so far, if it does not retaliate, it will appear weak yet again, and that will have consequences for the prestige of its Armed Forces.”

Undoubtedly Pakistan was surprised by the Iranian attack. If Pakistan had let it pass, they may have emboldened Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been protecting the anti-Pakistan Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). On the other hand, adopting an adversarial posture toward Iran complicates the balance of Pakistan’s already complex relations with its neighbours. Thus, by escalating against Iran, Pakistan is inviting a three-front dilemma involving Afghanistan, India, and Iran.

The Effect in the Region

China which has close relations with both countries has urged Pakistan and Iran to show restraint. After all Baluchistan is a region crucial to its Belt and Road Initiative, and it can ill afford tensions in this province.

Russia’s also called on Iran and Pakistan to show maximum restraint and its Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a statement said; “It is regrettable that this is happening between friendly SCO countries, with which we are developing partnership relations. Further aggravation of the situation plays into the hands of those who are not interested in peace, stability, and security in the region.”

Although both Western and regional countries do not want the war in Gaza to escalate, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis are patiently and methodically consolidating an alliance of forces across a regional battlefield and these include the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria. The Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea demonstrate a threat to global trade and energy supplies.

The West sees Tehran as the mastermind behind this network, and there is no doubt that the axis reflects Iran’s strategic outlook. Its Revolutionary Guards have also provided these proxies with lethal military capabilities and support.

There is a difference between the missile attacks in Pakistan and the Houthi attacks in Yemen, as possibly Iran wants to lower the tempo of conflict with Pakistan as regards terrorism, whereas in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, Iran wants to raise the tempo in an effort, among other goals, to drive the United States out of the Middle East and establish Iran’s regional dominance.

Yet targeting three neighbours Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, that too simultaneously, in a way shows the kind of relations that Iran has in the region. Though the current attack on Iraq was confined to the Kurds’ area, supposedly a building of a local, allegedly fronting for Israel’s Mossad. Can Iran’s decision to strike be guided by internal pressure forcing it to flex its military muscle to deter further targeted killings and strikes in the region.

In an official statement Iran’s Foreign Ministry emphasised ‘that Iran differentiates between Pakistan’s friendly and brotherly government and armed terrorists. It always adheres to its policy of good neighbourliness and does not allow its enemies and terrorist allies to strain these relations.’ He separately said that the ‘ missile attack on a building in Erbil, Iraq’s Kurdistan region, was justified by legitimate defence and compliant with international law.

But from another perspective, the Iranian action also highlight Iran’s ability to project power beyond its borders, as also reflects the kind of military depth the country thinks it possesses, which not everyone is willing to concede.

Implications For India

“Prepare your coffins,” a banner warns Iran’s adversaries in Tehran, 16 Jan 2024

India said that Iran’s missile attack on Pakistan “is a matter between Iran and Pakistan. Insofar as India is concerned, we have an uncompromising position of zero tolerance towards terrorism.

Pakistan has an active Army comprising of approximately 7,00,000 soldiers. If other fronts are peaceful, Pakistan can concentrate all troops on its Eastern front, bordering India. India on the other hand has a 1.2 million strong army. However, the Indian Army has to look after several fronts. On a simple calculus it can deploy anything between 4,00,000-5,00,000 troops on the west, which is roughly the same number or lesser than the opposite side. However, the moment Pakistan commits troops elsewhere, the balance immediately shifts in favour of India. Pakistan getting entwined in military duties to its West will change its focus altogether. It will naturally force Pakistan to commit its reserves in that direction and hence 11 and 12 Corps which are in Peshawar and Quetta respectively will get tied down. Militarily, this is a clear win-win for India.

There is also the aspect about the Chinese radars and Air Defence protection of Pakistan which did not get activated and failed to detect the Iranian drones and missiles deep within Pakistan. The weakness was first evident when Osama Bin Laden was targeted in Abbottabad, thereafter when the Balakot strikes took place, as also in March 2022 when the Brahmos missile fired accidently landed at Mian Channu, and now when Iran has struck deep within Pakistan. This has raised questions on Pakistan’s capability to protect its airspace.

The retaliatory strikes by Pakistan can also be viewed as a form of signalling to India that any strikes within Pakistan territory will be responded to. It is likely that Pakistan would have had the tacit support of China while carrying out these attacks and is a means for the Pakistani Armed Forces to regain their importance.

One of the fallouts though a remote possibility could be that the US feels that Pakistan is now a bulwark against Iran and starts funding it militarily. The concern naturally is that military aid to fight terrorism and Iran will be diverted to strengthen Pakistani Armed Forces against India.

The fact remains that of all the current hot spots in the world, the Middle East if allowed to flare up, has the potential to adversely affect a very major chunk of India’s imports and exports specially in the vital energy sector.

To any analyst the writing seems very clear Pakistan is now committed on three of its land borders namely India which it views as its primary threat, Afghanistan where the Taliban regime has allowed its ground to be used for attacks by militants and Iran where matters have escalated.


There is no doubt that Iran’s hitting of its nuclear-armed Eastern neighbour is a dramatic escalation. While countries reserve the right to retaliate against terrorist groups and proxies supported by hostile states, but Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence was clearly not a factor when Iran decided to strike across the border. Or could this mean that Iran has its own bomb?

For Pakistan its troubles on its western borders are only increasing. It already faces security issues with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State Khorasan (ISKP) and its deteriorating relationship with the Afghan Taliban. Now a new front has opened with the Iranians.

The activities of militant groups on both sides of the border are one of the biggest irritants in the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and Iran and both countries need to address this issue in a mature fashion to ensure the situation does not worsen further. While matters are unlikely to calm down soon, this is also something both countries would not like to escalate.

Is this the beginning or the end. I would place my bets on the former.


Maj Gen VK Singh, VSM was commissioned into The Scinde Horse in Dec 1983. The officer has commanded an Independent Recce Sqn in the desert sector, and has the distinction of being the first Armoured Corps Officer to command an Assam Rifles Battalion in Counter Insurgency Operations in Manipur and Nagaland, as well as the first General Cadre Officer to command a Strategic Forces Brigade. He then commanded 12 Infantry Division (RAPID) in Western Sector. The General is a fourth generation army officer.

Major General Jagatbir Singh was commissioned into 18 Cavalry in December 1981. During his 38 years of service in the Army he has held various command, staff and instructional appointments and served in varied terrains in the country. He has served in a United Nations Peace Keeping Mission as a Military Observer in Iraq and Kuwait.  He has been an instructor to Indian Military Academy and the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. He is  a prolific writer in defence & national security and adept at public speaking.

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