DANIEL VAUGHAN: Iran And Pakistan Hold Key To What Happens Next In Israel

 January 19, 2024

In theory, Iran and Pakistan getting into a spat over targeting terrorist groups at a mutual border shouldn't result in a broader conflict. And, indeed, I don't expect it to cause a broad war between the two countries. It's less about Iran and Pakistan than what a minor conflict between those two could signal to everyone else.

Iran and Pakistan are targeting terrorist groups suspected of operating out of the other's country. "Jaish al-Adl, the Sunni separatist group that Iran targeted on Tuesday, is believed to operate out of Pakistan, launching attacks on Iranian security forces. The Baluch Liberation Army, which was formed in 2000 and has launched attacks against Pakistani security forces and Chinese infrastructure projects, is suspected of hiding out in Iran."

The results of Iran's strikes have taken out civilians in Pakistan, and the same is true for Pakistan's responses. Complicating matters for both is that their military focus is not in that region. Pakistan is heavily invested in its borders with India, and Iran is focused primarily on the United States and Israel. That leaves one big blind spot in the region both are targeting now.

Beyond that, the more significant conflict is in Israel. Iran is funding and supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen (among others). The United States has started striking back at groups attacking US soldiers in the region. And Israel faces a growing question of whether or not they should launch a broader response against Hezbollah.

Watching Iran get entangled with Pakistan has to look like a tempting invitation to Israel. When is a better chance to strike your enemy than when their attention is divided on multiple fronts in radically different directions?

The clash with Pakistan is occurring on Iran's borders to the east. The fight with Israel is in the West. Everyone would generally agree that Iran would choose a conflict with Israel and the United States over a clash with Pakistan. But if Pakistan starts operating more freely in Iran's borders, they'll have no choice but to respond.

And this is the critical way a border skirmish could push the Middle East further into conflict. Suppose Pakistan helps divert Iran away from Israel, even a little bit. In that case, that will be incentive enough for Israel to strike. And after the Hamas terrorist attacks, Israel would be insane to pass up such an opportunity.

In turn, if Israel takes this chance to open up a direct war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran will get drawn in that direction and away from Pakistan. The dominos fall in Pakistan's way, allowing them to target terrorist groups in Iran's borders.

Iran and Pakistan are further incentivized to increase attacks on these terrorist groups due to domestic politics: "Tehran has been experiencing a growing pressure for some kind of action after a deadly Islamic State group attack earlier this month, Israel's war on Iran's ally, Hamas, and wider unrest against its theocracy. Pakistan's attack on Thursday also served a domestic purpose, according to analysts."

Where is all this going? No one knows. China has stepped in, trying to mediate the conflict. The United States released a boilerplate message telling both parties to simmer down. The US isn't interested in dealing with an Iran-Pakistan match, and China is in a deep economic recession. War would cripple their region further.

In a typical year, Iran and Pakistan getting into a shooting match would be a notable event in geopolitics. Still, they wouldn't matter in the grand scheme. The problem is that it's occurring against a backdrop where Russia is in Ukraine, Israel is at war with Hamas and potentially Hezbollah, and the United States is conducting air strikes with allies against Iranian proxies.

If none of the other things were happening, we wouldn't even pay attention to this conflict in the West. It would not hit our radars. But when the region is already bubbling with wars and conflicts across the board, adding more tension creates more situations for escalation by any party.

For the United States, the other problem is one of control. Increasing the number of active conflicts removes a level of control over situations. That creates dangers for US interests in the region and Americans more broadly. Balancing multiple disputes is never easy and can lead to more problems.

This is one of many reasons why Biden should have negotiated an end to the Russia-Ukraine conflict when he had better leverage over Putin. The longer something festers like this, the more it could interact with other conflicts.

Hopefully, nothing comes of Pakistan and Iran getting into a shooting match. But in geopolitics, basing a strategy on hope isn't the most secure position.

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