June 18, 2024

An Iranian airstrike inside Pakistan on Tuesday that Iran said was aimed at militant training camps has left Pakistani officials facing a difficult decision about whether to retaliate and potentially expand the turmoil that has swept the Middle East.

Relations between Pakistan and neighboring Iran reached a new low after Iran’s attack in the restive Baluchistan region, with Pakistan reporting civilian casualties, including children, and warning that the violation of its sovereignty could have serious consequences. On Wednesday, Pakistan expelled the Iranian ambassador to Islamabad and recalled its own ambassador from Iran.

In a statement, Pakistan said it “reserves the right to respond” to what it called an illegal and unprovoked attack.

“The responsibility for the consequences will lie squarely with Iran,” it added.

But beyond the diplomatic protests and warnings, it was not immediately clear if Pakistan, which is reeling from political and economic crises and headed for parliamentary elections next month, is in a position to strike back militarily or enter into a drawn-out conflict with Iran.

Iran has been emboldened since the war in Gaza began in October, using proxy forces against Israel and its allies and increasing the risk of a spiraling regional conflict. On Tuesday, Tehran used its own military to attack both Pakistan and Iraq, responding to what it said were terrorist assaults inside Iran, exacerbating tensions in the region.

“If Pakistan hits back, it risks getting drawn into Middle East conflicts it has avoided so far,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador who is now a scholar of diplomacy. “If it does not retaliate, it will appear weak yet again, and that will have consequences for the prestige of its armed forces.”

Muhammad Ashfaque Arain, a former air marshal in the Pakistani Air Force, pointed to the delicate position Pakistan was in, with a caretaker government in charge until the election.

“The Iranian strike is a very serious development,” he said. “The fact that there is no elected government complicates the response.”

Mr. Arain noted that with the Iranian strike in Pakistani territory, Pakistan was confronting troubled relations with three of its neighbors. While India has long been an adversary, Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan have also soured in recent months, with Pakistani officials accusing the Afghan Taliban of providing shelter to militant groups, including their ally the Pakistani Taliban, a claim the Afghan group has rejected.

Pakistan’s recent policy of expelling undocumented foreigners, mostly Afghans, has further strained relations.

Over the years, both Iran and Pakistan have accused each other of sheltering militants along their shared 559-mile border.

Tehran points the finger at Jaish al-Adl, a militant group operating in southeastern Iran and on the Pakistan-Iran border, saying it has carried out attacks within Iranian territory. Established in 2012, the group emerged from the remnants of Jundallah, a Sunni militant organization that had diminished after Iran captured and executed its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, in 2010.

On Dec. 15, Jaish al-Adl attacked a police station in southeastern Iran, killing 11 officers. 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.

Pakistan, in turn, has accused Iran of supporting separatists in Baluchistan, a southwestern Pakistani province rich in oil and other natural resources that has been the site of an insurgency for decades. Pakistani officials also cite the 2016 arrest of an Indian naval officer in Baluchistan as proof that Indian espionage backed by Iran is supporting the Baluch insurgency.

The strike on Tuesday was not the first time Iranian forces had hit inside Pakistan, but the attack was the deepest inside Pakistani territory. In 2021, Iran retrieved two Iranian soldiers who were being held hostage by Jaish al-Adl inside Pakistani territory. In 2017, the Pakistani Air Force shot down an Iranian drone.

The latest Iranian strike, amid the heightened political tensions in Pakistan before the election scheduled for Feb. 8, was seemingly timed to take advantage of that turmoil, analysts said.

Imran Khan, the former prime minister who accuses the Pakistani military of removing his government, is in jail. His supporters have unleashed a barrage of criticism at the country’s military, which has struggled to contain the former prime minister’s popularity.

Ahmed Quraishi, an Islamabad-based analyst who focuses on the Middle East, underlined that context. “The timing is extremely important, unsettling Pakistan amid a long-drawn political crisis that has exhausted state institutions,” he said.

Iran appears to see “a weakness in Pakistan,” Mr. Quraishi added. “I don’t think the Pakistanis can afford to let this incident pass without a response. But retaliation, whenever it happens, will be swift and will maintain an element of surprise.”