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Iran's strikes in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan raise tensions in the fraught region


This week saw rising unrest in the Middle East stretch into Central Asia. Iran struck at a target it claimed was an Israeli spy headquarters in northern Iraq. It also attacked what it claimed to be terrorist groups in northwest Syria. Then on Tuesday, it launched a series of strikes against neighboring Pakistan. Pakistan struck back on Thursday. Each country claims the other is harboring terrorists. These strikes come at a time in the war between Hamas and Israel has already sparked tensions in the region. Masoud Mostajabi is deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Middle East programs and joins us now. Mr. Mostajabi, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: What set off these strikes?

MOSTAJABI: So this week's attacks, in particular, were likely to have been both an aggressive demonstration of Iran's technological advances - particularly its expansive missile arsenal and fleet of drones - and a reminder that it is a regional power with a clear willingness to strike, particularly having itself just witnessed major terror attacks in the city of Kerman, separatist attacks in the southeast region of the country, the death of a high-level IRGC commander in Syria, and several other fatalities among senior acts of resistance associates.

More so, I think Iran's willingness to strike what it considers its adversaries is partly a venting of anger, partly a warning and partly a sales pitch to its current and future customers. There's a need to question whether they might have chosen to carry out all these strikes to test some of their more advanced missiles under combat conditions, for example, and/or to send a message to Israel and the West, or potentially do both.

SIMON: You mentioned a sales pitch for Iran to be able to sell their arsenal internationally.

MOSTAJABI: Right. The standard missiles that Iran provides groups like Ansar Allah in Yemen, or the Houthis or Hezbollah in Lebanon, when combined with drones, can overwhelm air defenses. But the missiles that were used, in particular in Syria, what is - they call Kheibar Shekan, sets itself apart from these other systems because of the greater range and higher accuracy than previous Iranian missiles - solid propellant precision missile 1,400-plus km, about 900 miles, making capable of reaching Israel.

SIMON: And an actual strike makes a point that - just to - forgive me - a traditional sales pitch wouldn't.

MOSTAJABI: Yeah. The view from Tehran striking in Syria was to both threaten and display to Israel and the West these weapons' capabilities. And so given the fact that, for example, the Russians are buying a number of drones that they're using in their own theater and war against Ukraine, this is just an area for them to be able to display their technological advances in this field, both, again, in drones and in their missile systems.

SIMON: Mr. Mostajabi, any concern that groups in Afghanistan might be drawn in? Because both those countries share a border with Afghanistan.

MOSTAJABI: I don't believe so. Quite honestly, I think Iran - the Iranian government - made a significant strategic mistake in targeting Pakistan as it did. Iran has the Western theaters that is more so focused on - in Iraq and Syria, as we've touched on in Lebanon. And so I don't believe that they would want to push for another front with Afghanistan. This is a country, in particular, the Taliban, that the Iranian government has had a history of conflict and issues with, particularly in the late 1990s.

But I think what is really important to mention, and what is being overlooked by the international community, is the complex local paradigm in this region - for example, the fact that both Iran and Pakistan have bombed their own people and many refugees in this area - in the Balochistan on the Iranian side, as well as the Pakistani side - and now, you know, obviously doing so in their own respective countries. But nonetheless, both have faced internal threats from their Baloch communities, and both have been unable to deal with them in a way to dissuade them from extremism. Although obviously, it's essential to clarify very strongly that the majority of Baloch in both countries are not extremists.

SIMON: What specifically could happen? Would Pakistan step up their attacks beyond reprisal that we've already seen?

MOSTAJABI: Yeah. You know, I don't believe the Pakistanis are going to. I think they saw this as a proportionate response. And I think Iran likely calculated that this is absorbable for them. And so this is likely where this, you know, ends for both. But to my mind, there actually is an opportunity for both sides. They have had a history of intelligence sharing between both countries, particularly addressing the challenges posed by Daesh, or ISIS. So to my mind, the opportunity is to reassess and establish something of a border management system that effectively addresses the security concerns of both countries.

SIMON: Masoud Mostajabi is deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Middle East programs. Thanks so much for being with us.

MOSTAJABI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISASTERPEACE'S "MARCEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.