A succession of Iranian missile attacks on Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and Pakistan have heightened fears of regional upheaval and war across the Middle East and South Asia.

Following Iran’s airstrike on Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry has today (17 January 2024) expelled Tehran’s ambassador.

“This illegal act is completely unacceptable and has no justification whatsoever”, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Pakistan reserves the right to respond”.

Iranian state TV claimed the missiles targeted two sites in Balochistan with links to Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni militant group which has previously claimed responsibility for attacks on Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as part of its fight for independence in Balochistan.

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By GlobalData

In a Telegram post, Jaish al-Adl said the IRGC had used six drones and multiple rockets to destroy two houses where the children and partners of its militants lived.

Officials in Balochistan, meanwhile, said four missiles hit the village of Koh-i-Sabaz in the Panjgur district, 50km from the Pakistan-Iran border, killing two young girls and injuring three others.

Deceitful diplomacy in Davos

Mere hours before, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian had met with Anwar ul Haq - Caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan – at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland.

The pair reportedly discussed direct flights between Tehran and Islamabad, bilateral economic ties and “agreements already reached between the two countries on fighting terror”. Both expressed their discontent with Israel’s continued offensive on Gaza.

Earlier in the day, Amirabdollahian also sat down with Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, a meeting which raised several eyebrows.

There has been a long-held animosity between neighbouring Pakistan and India over the disputed region of Kashmir, with tensions simmering amid last June’s border clashes.

India’s arch-rival China, meanwhile, has urged Pakistan and Iran to show “restraint”.

When questioned on Iran’s airstrikes in Davos, Amirabdollahian said only “terrorists” were hit.

Perhaps aggrieved by recent attacks on home soil – notably a bombing in the Iranian city of Kerman on 3 January that killed an estimated 94 people – Iran seems intent on dishing out heavy-handed retribution on those it believes are responsible.

Iran's airstrikes on Iraq and Syria targeted Israeli “spy headquarters”

Who exactly Tehran views as responsible remains unclear.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has warned that Israel would pay a “regrettable price” when he accused intelligence agency Mossad of perpetrating the Kerman bombing.

The IRGC’s ballistic missile attacks in Iraq’s Kurdish region hit what Iran claimed were Israeli “spy headquarters”, while its targets in northern Syria were allegedly linked to ISIL (ISIS).

By proxy, Iran has waged war on Israel by supporting Hamas with weapons and supplies, as well as anti-Israeli militant groups in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Yemen (the Houthis).

Iran’s military activity has markedly ramped up despite the US and UK’s joint airstrikes on the Tehran-backed Houthis, a Yemeni militant group responsible for more than 30 attacks on ships in the Red Sea.

On 11 January, Iran’s navy boarded and captured a Greek-operated oil tanker in the Red Sea. The US had seized the tanker last year for alleged sanctions violations on Iranian oil.

Despite this, it remains unlikely that the US and UK would respond to Iran’s attacks on Pakistan, Syria and Kurdistan with missile strikes like in Yemen, according to Tristan Sauer, Defence Analyst at GlobalData.

“Strikes on Iranian territory from US and UK forces are pretty much a non-starter at the moment,” Sauer told Army Technology. “Iran has such pull with other regional proxy forces that this would only make a bad situation worse.”

Even discussion of such a military response is indicative of the escalating situation.

All regional and international powers must seek immediate diplomatic solutions to avoid a Middle Eastern conflict which looks poised to embroil as many parties as the 2013-2017 Iraq War.