Warning signs from West Asia

Warning signs from West Asia

Iranian missile strikes on “targets” in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria on Tuesday have accentuated fears that the war in Gaza may turn into a wider conflict engulfing West Asia. The attacks, which resulted in civilian casualties in both Pakistan’s Baloch province and in Erbil, Iraq Kurdistan, have triggered a strong response from Islamabad and Baghdad, both of which, ironically, have friendly relations with Tehran. Islamabad has warned that “this violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is completely unacceptable and can have serious consequences”. Iraq has recalled its ambassador to Tehran and filed a complaint with the UN Security Council over Iranian “aggression”. Islamabad has expelled the Iranian envoy and recalled its ambassador. Both Iraq and Pakistan seemed unfazed about Tehran’s claim that it was targeting terrorists involved in recent attacks within Iran.

Smoke billowing over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli bombardment, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)

Tehran’s unacceptable action, which borders on brinkmanship, could well be a gesture triggered by domestic compulsions. Over 100 people died in the January 3 bomb blast at the grave of Iranian military commander, Qasem Soleimani, responsibility for which was claimed by the Islamic State. Earlier in December, Baloch militants killed 11 policemen along the border Iran shares with Pakistan: Baloch militancy is active in both Pakistan and Iran, and both countries are known to collaborate in targeting militants. The Iranian economy has been in the doldrums since the 2018 economic sanctions, with inflation running in the range of 40%. Social unrest has put the Islamist administration on the defensive. However, closer ties with Russia and China have also emboldened Tehran to increase its profile in West Asia. The Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis are seen as proxies of Iran — all three outfits are involved in the Gaza war, directly or indirectly. Clearly, the conflict in Gaza is turning into a shadow war between Tehran and Tel Aviv. Tuesday’s military strikes do not seem related to that, although they may serve the purpose of drawing many more countries into the conflict. It’s also likely that the launch of the missiles into Pakistan, Iraq and Syria is an explicit message to Israel and the US of Tehran’s intent and capabilities.

Any further escalation of the conflict will have terrible consequences – political, economic and social – for the region and beyond. A first step would be to stop Israel’s aggression in Gaza, where over 24,000 people have been killed in a war that has raged for over 100 days. And a second, more difficult one, would be understanding Tehran’s motivations, triggers, and intent.

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