In two days, Iran has fired missiles at three countries. After last Monday’s air strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, which Iran claims were aimed at ‘Israeli spies’ and ‘terrorists’ of the Islamic State (IS) respectively, Tehran also bombed anti-Iranian separatists in Pakistan on Tuesday.
It is the first time since the outbreak of the war in Gaza that Iran itself has taken military action in the region instead of leaving it to its allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Last night, Pakistan responded by launching airstrikes on Iran. According to the country, targets of a terrorist organization have been attacked. Seven people were killed in the attacks. Amid months of building tension, this quickly raises the question: are we seeing the beginning of Iran’s direct participation in a regional war?
That is still not what Tehran itself is referring to, argues Hamidreza Azizi, Iran expert at the Foundation for Science and Politics in Berlin. “These attacks are not the result of war hunger,” he says by telephone. “They are rather a response from an insecure regime that has taken a number of blows recently and now wants to show a domestic audience in particular that it can respond strongly to this.”
For example, according to Azizi, the Iranian attack in Syria was intended as revenge after the bomb attack claimed by IS near the grave of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on January 3, which killed 84 people. The one on the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil is intended to serve as a reprisal against an alleged Israeli airstrike on an Iranian general in Damascus at the end of December. It is not at all certain whether Iran actually hit IS-related or Israeli targets. In Syria, an empty medical clinic was destroyed in Syria, according to local aid workers, and a prominent Kurdish businessman was killed in Erbil.
“With these types of attacks, Iran can give the appearance of hitting hard domestically without taking too many risks internationally,” says Azizi. According to him, even an attack on Erbil is less far-reaching than it seems at first glance. “Iran also attacked ‘Israeli’ targets in Erbil in 2022. Such an attack therefore remains within the bounds of what is known.”
However, the latter does not apply to the Iranian air strike on Pakistan. This is without recent precedent and sparked outrage in Islamabad, which reported two children killed. Tehran then emphasized that it had exclusively targeted “Iranian terrorists” from Jaish al-Adl, a fighting group of the Baluchi minority living in both Iran and Pakistan that attacked an Iranian police station in December. In any case, this attack had little to do with the war in Gaza.
However, the fact that this connection is quickly made as soon as Iran takes up arms is due to the role that Tehran ascribes to itself as the leader of the ‘Axis of Resistance’, an alliance of anti-Israeli and anti-American fighting groups that also includes Hezbollah and the Houthis. to belong. Especially now that the US and the UK, with Dutch support among others, have started air strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen, people are watching closely to see how Iran will respond.
But Iran is not looking for war in the Red Sea either, says Ibrahim Fraihat, an expert on Iran’s foreign policy at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar. The fact that the Houthis continue to attack ships with weapons supplied by Iran does not change this as far as he is concerned. “You cannot reduce the Houthis to an Iranian ‘proxy’,” Fraihat said by telephone. “They are actually considered one of Iran’s most unpredictable partners and have a clear agenda of their own. The reason why they are continuing their attacks on the Red Sea is because they want to strengthen their popularity and position of power within Yemen. Not because Iran pushes a button behind the scenes.”
According to Fraihat, the fact that Iran wants to prevent further escalation is partly because it wants to maintain good ties with Saudi Arabia. After Chinese mediation, the two rivals restored diplomatic ties last year, after which Saudi Arabia ended its eight-year war against the Houthis. “Both countries want to prevent the current situation in the Red Sea from disrupting their rapprochement again,” Fraihat said. “So far that seems to be working. It is not without reason that Saudi Arabia is not yet participating in the Western attacks against the Houthis.”
In any case, Iran does not have the military capacity for a direct confrontation with the West. “Iran has few combat aircraft and its ships are many times less well equipped than those of the US and the UK,” Azizi said from Berlin. “The fact that Iran no longer comes to the aid of the Houthis is also because it simply cannot do so.”
Iran will probably continue to limit itself to indirect attacks such as those in Syria and Erbil and the usual condemnations of Israel and the West in the near future, both academics expect. “Tehran still gains a strategic advantage from this,” says Fraihat. “While Iran was previously despised by the Arab street, partly because of its support for the Assad regime in Syria, it is now scoring many points again by positioning itself as the leader of the pro-Palestinian camp.”
But those who create expectations must also fulfill them. Now that Iran has still not taken a really strong action against Israel after three months of Israeli war violence in Gaza, Fraihat sees that the population of Arab countries is also increasingly critical of Tehran’s empty language. “That is also why Tehran wants a ceasefire in Gaza as soon as possible,” he says. “Once Israel stops the violence, it will take the sting out of all these regional tensions.”