Why There’s a Sudden Crisis Between Pakistan and Iran

On Tuesday, January 16th, Iran launched airstrikes in Pakistan targeting a terrorist group it claimed carried out attacks in Iran. Two days later, Pakistan responded with its own strikes in Iranian territory, targeting a separatist group that has carried out attacks against Pakistan.

These attacks were notable for both their scale–these were major missile and drone strikes —  and for the fact that Iran and Pakistan otherwise have normal, stable and even cordial diplomatic relations. These are not hostile neighbors, yet in the course of one week they conducted major military strikes on each others’ territory. And of course, these hostilities come amid escalating instability throughout the broader Middle East.

My podcast guest Michael Kugelman is Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. We kick off discussing Pakistani-Iranian relations and why this episode is such a departure from normal. Michael Kugelman explains how this flare up is influenced by the fraught situation in the Middle East, and offers some insights into how this crisis may evolve in the coming days and weeks.

The full episode is freely available across all podcast listening platforms. The excerpt below explains the decision making behind Pakistan’s retaliatory strikes.

Why Did Pakistan Respond the Way it Did?

Mark Leon Goldberg: I imagine Pakistan was kind of shocked by the scale of the Iranian attack in its territory. What was the discussion and the debate within Pakistan following the attack? And why did Pakistan decided to retaliate in the way that it did?

Michael Kugelman: Definitely “shock” is a word that would describe the reaction in Pakistan. Also, quite frankly, embarrassment that this happened. I think a big reason for the shock was not just because of the scale of what happened, but also the fact that it was Iran that did it. Pakistan does not see Iran as a hostile neighbor. I think it was genuinely surprised that Iran would have done something like this.

In terms of the thinking that went into a decision to retaliate: First of all, the fact the attack was of such an unprecedented scale was a big compelling reason for Pakistan to retaliate. But a second and perhaps even more compelling reason for it to retaliate was a need to restore deterrence as quickly as possible. What do I mean by that? Pakistan knows the context that you and I were discussing earlier — that Iran is on this very dangerous regional offensive campaign to directly target threats to itself in the broader Middle East. I think that Pakistan likely feared that if it had not retaliated — and if it had not retaliated swiftly — the chances of another Iranian strike on Pakistani soil would have increased. I think that’s the compelling reason.

There certainly are other factors at play. Pakistan is experiencing severe political turbulence at the moment. There has been rising anger among the public against the Pakistani army, mainly because the army’s been cracking down hard on Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister who’s very popular. He’s been in jail since August. The army likely concluded that it could get a bit of a political bounce, even if a momentary one, out of retaliation on the assumption that many Pakistanis would have supported a strong, quick retaliation.

Finally, in anything that Pakistan does when it comes to security policy India always looms large. And I think that another reason why Pakistan may have decided to retaliate, and especially as quickly as it did, was with an Indian audience in mind — basically to signal that if India were to consider doing something like this on Pakistani soil, this is what they’d get.

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