Why did Iran carry out strikes in three countries?

Iran, faced with growing internal and external security challenges as West Asia is engulfed in a widening crisis, moved to strike its enemies in neighbouring countries

January 17, 2024 03:23 pm | Updated January 19, 2024 07:00 pm IST

People hold photos of a child killed in the Iranian strikes at the house of Peshraw Dizayi during a protest in front of the U.N. office in Irbil, Iraq on January 16, 2024. Dizayi, a prominent Kurdish businessman, was killed in one of the Irbil strikes along with members of his family.

People hold photos of a child killed in the Iranian strikes at the house of Peshraw Dizayi during a protest in front of the U.N. office in Irbil, Iraq on January 16, 2024. Dizayi, a prominent Kurdish businessman, was killed in one of the Irbil strikes along with members of his family. | Photo Credit: AP

On December 15, 2023, a police station in Rask in Iran’s Sistan Baluchestan province, roughly 60 km from the Pakistani border, came under attack by a number of gunmen. At least 11 Iranian security personnel were killed in the attack, which was claimed by the Jaish al-Adl (the Army of Justice), a Sunni Islamist group operating in the border region that has been designated as a terror outfit by Tehran. 

On December 25, Brigadier General Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior adviser to Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was killed in an air strike in a southern suburb of Damascus. Mousavi, who was one of the most influential IRGC commanders operating in Syria, was killed after a meeting with Iran’s Ambassador in Damascus. Tehran immediately blamed Israel for the strike and the latter neither confirmed nor denied its role. 

On January 3, 2024, a memorial event for Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander who was assassinated by the U.S. in January 2020, in Kerman in southeastern Iran was hit by twin blasts, killing at least 94 people. The Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghanistan-based branch of the Islamic State terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the attack. All these attacks took place after the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas broke out on October 7, and Iran-backed militias in the region started attacking U.S. and Israeli troops as well as commercial vessels. As a regional crisis was spreading, Iran seemed vulnerable to growing security challenges. And the pressure on the Mullahs was building up.    

Also read | Pakistan-Iran attacks LIVE Updates

Iran’s retaliation 

On January 15-16, Iran claimed to have carried out retaliatory strikes against “the perpetrators” of all these attacks. First, it launched missiles and kamikaze drones into Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan. Iraq is a de facto Iranian ally, but the Iraqi Kurdistan, a close partner of the U.S., is an autonomous region. The IRGC claimed that its attacks destroyed “an espionage centre” of Mossad, Israel’s external security agency, in Erbil. It said the centre was used to “develop espionage operations and plan acts of terrorism across the region, especially in Iran”.

Iran’s claims were dismissed by the local authorities in Erbil, who said the strike hit the house of Peshraw Majeed Agha Dezaei, a Kurdish businessman with close ties to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Dezaei, a property magnate, was instantly killed in the attack. IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency claimed in its Telegram channel that Dezaei was “a very important colleague of Mossad” and that he was involved in the export of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to Israel. While Kurdistan exports more than 1,03,000 barrels of oil to Israel daily, Iran provided no evidence of either Dezaei’s involvement in the trade or his links to Mossad.

On the same day, Iran launched at least four ballistic missiles into Syria’s Idlib, the northwestern region controlled by jihadists and rebels. Iran says the IS-K jihadists, who operate from Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, get training in Idlib, which is run by Tahrir al-Sham, a Sunni Islamist outfit which was previously called Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria. The IRGC claimed that its attacks destroyed IS-training camps in Idlib.

Spillover effect   

On January 16, Iran carried out a surprise attack in Panjgur, a border town in neighbouring Pakistan’s Balochistan, targeting what it called the training camps of Jaish al-Adl, which had taken responsibility for the December 15 attack in Rask. Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni Islamist group, seeks to separate Iran’s eastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, which is mostly Sunni, from the rest of the country, which is ruled by the Shia clergy. Iran had in the past complained about the presence of Jaish in Pakistani soil. But Tuesday’s attacks marked a significant escalation in tensions between Iran and Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country, and also enhanced risks of the West Asian crisis spilling over into South Asia. Pakistan has protested the attack, saying it’s a violation of its air space, and warned Iran of “serious consequences”.

Also Read | Pakistan condemns Iran over bombing allegedly targeting militants that killed two people

Iran came under great pressure after the Gaza war broke out, between Hamas, which gets support from Tehran, and Israel, its main rival in West Asia. Besides fighting a devastating war in Gaza, which has killed over 24,000 Palestinians, Israel has also carried out targeted strikes in Lebanon and Syria, killing Iranian, Hezbollah and Hamas commanders. Houthis, another Iran-backed Shia militia, are also being attacked, by the U.S. and the U.K., after they targeted vessels in the Red Sea

Ring of fire 

The crisis is spreading like wildfire across the region, with profound implications for Iran’s security, both internal and external. By carrying out multiple strikes in three geographies, Iran seems to be flexing its military muscles. It wants to send a message, to both the Sunni militants and its conventional rivals in the region, that it would not hesitate to take military actions in its weak, fractured neighbouring countries against targets which it deems hostile if its security red lines are breached, even at the risk of a wider war. Iran also seeks to assure its people that the government can act assertively to ensure security of the Islamic Republic and that the killing of its commanders would be avenged.  

Iran may also be thinking that Israel is stuck in Gaza and the U.S. is preoccupied with the Houthis. This gives Tehran some space to make relatively bolder military moves. But what’s to be seen is whether the attacks would help Iran improve its internal and external security or these would further worsen the security crisis in a region, which is already in a ring of fire.

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