Iran-Pakistan Cross-Border Attacks — Nature and Motivations


Iran and Pakistan recently conducted cross-border airstrikes into each other’s territories, claiming that the attacks were undertaken to safeguard their respective national security interests by targeting “terrorist” groups across the border. These attacks reflect the wider backdrop of internal and external challenges facing Iran and Pakistan in the evolving regional security landscape.

On January 16, 2024, Iran launched missile and drone strikes in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, allegedly targeting the Iranian Baloch militant group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice). The attack came after similar strikes in Iraq and Syria a day earlier, which, according to  Iran, targeted “terrorist” cells and Mossad headquarters in Erbil in response to the Kerman bombings.  Pakistan immediately condemned Iran’s attack, accusing it of killing two children and violating the country’s sovereignty and airspace. In retaliation, on January 18, Pakistan conducted airstrikes in Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan Province, claiming to target Baloch separatist insurgents. As per reports, nine people were killed in these airstrikes.  The timing of the Iranian attack was unusual and surprising as it coincided with a meeting between Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Simultaneously, joint naval exercises were taking place in the  Arabian Gulf.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement, called Iran’s attack a violation of international law. Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson Mumtaz Baloch, in a statement, said, “This illegal act is completely unacceptable and has no justification whatsoever. Pakistan reserves the right to respond to this illegal act. The responsibility for the consequences will lie squarely with Iran.” Soon after  Pakistan’s retaliatory airstrikes,   Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement, strongly condemned Pakistan’s airstrikes on non-Iranian villagers along the border. In a carefully worded statement, Iran emphasized its commitment to good neighborliness with Pakistan, urging against the establishment of armed group bases in Pakistan. The statement underscored Iran’s consideration of maintaining friendly relations and not allowing external influences to strain ties and escalate tensions. Both countries also recalled their ambassadors soon after the cross-border strikes, however, both ambassadors returned to resume their diplomatic duties after tensions subsided. As per reports, Iran’s Foreign Minister Abdollahian visited Pakistan on January 29.  Abdollahian, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, said, “…none of the nationals of the friendly and brotherly country of Pakistan were targeted by Iranian missiles and drones.” Iran’s Defense Minister Mohammed Reza Gharaei Ashtiani emphasized that the source of the threat to Iran is inconsequential. He affirmed that Iran is prepared to respond with a proportional, decisive and firm reaction to any form of threat.

Iran’s calculations for striking Pakistan remain opaque, however, Pakistan’s response was calculated to establish deterrence while avoiding a full-fledged conflict. Iran and Pakistan both claimed that they were targeting “terrorist” groups across their shared border for the sake of national and border security.

Iran’s attacks primarily aimed to demonstrate deterrence in light of concerns about the diminishing capabilities and efficiency of Iranian security forces. Consequently, an assessment of statements and responses from Iranian officials reflects a symbolic effort to portray  Iran’s capability and political will to conduct cross-border attacks on groups posing threats to national security. Moreover, Iran’s aggressive actions could serve as a message to its citizens, emphasizing the government’s preparedness to employ force, particularly in response to internal dissent. This has become more pronounced as Iran continues to face significant domestic challenges, with its security forces struggling to maintain border security.

Jaish al-Adl has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Iran, specifically targeting the IRGC and Iran’s security forces. In December 2023,  the outfit  launched deadly attacks on a police station in Rask in Sistan and Balochistan Province, killing at least 11 officers. Iran’s Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi criticized Pakistan’s border security, alleging that the militants had crossed from Pakistan to carry out the attack, and accused Israel of supporting the outfit.  Moreover, following the Kerman bombings,  Iran needed to demonstrate strength, assert control over the situation, and retaliate against what is considered the deadliest attack the country has faced since the Iranian revolution. Iran’s military response aimed to restore confidence and credibility in the country’s security establishment. Moreover, some Iranian experts have claimed that the decision to launch the attack on Pakistan was made quickly as  Iran’s enemies were planning to launch further attacks,  suggesting that Iran’s higher authorities may not have been included in the decision-making process, however, this is implausible given the gravity of the airstrikes into Pakistani territories.

Even with ample evidence indicating the involvement of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in the Kerman bombings, Iran refrained from launching retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan. This restraint is driven by the concern that any escalation of tensions could be particularly challenging for Iran at this juncture, especially as the Taliban’s responses could be unpredictable. In addition, there are good communication channels with Pakistan, which were crucial in de-escalating tensions after the mutual airstrikes, whereas, in the case of the Taliban, relations remain strained with distrust prevailing between Tehran and Kabul. Finally, Iran knows that Pakistan would respond but then seek to de-escalate as it is a state that is mindful of international law and subject to international pressures, whereas the Taliban is a militia group that does not adhere to international law, hence it could launch deadly attacks, continue to escalate and even instruct splinter groups to attack Iran.

Editorial Team