Iranian Strikes in Iraq and Pakistan Inflame Regional Tensions

Iran hit its neighbors Pakistan and Iraq with missile strikes on Tuesday, prompting strong denunciations from both countries and raising fears that upheaval in the Middle East could spiral out of control.

Since the war in Gaza began in October, Iran has used its proxy forces against Israel and its allies. But on Tuesday, it said its latest missile strikes had been in response to terrorist attacks within its borders.

The missile strikes, nevertheless, raised tensions in a region where conflict has now touched at least five nations.

“They are contributing to the escalation of regional tensions — and it must stop,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement, after the strike on Iraq. Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, also denounced the strike on Iraq.

Iraq was the first to report being hit in a strike in the Kurdistan region, which it said killed several people, including an 11-month-old girl. Hours after the Iraqi government recalled its ambassador to Tehran and summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad to protest the strike, Pakistan said it, too, had been hit by its neighbor.

“Pakistan strongly condemns the unprovoked violation of its airspace by Iran and the strike inside Pakistani territory, which resulted in death of two innocent children while injuring three girls,” the government said in a statement. “This violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is completely unacceptable and can have serious consequences.”

The missile strike in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state, hit a remote mountainous region on Tuesday. The strike in Iraq, which has close political and military ties with Iran, hit the Kurdistan capital, Erbil, around midnight Tuesday and involved ballistic missiles and drones. Iraqi government officials said it had killed four civilians.

In both cases, Iranian officials said they were going after terrorists they accused of being behind recent attacks on its territory that have badly shaken Iranians. This month, suicide bombers killed 84 people at a memorial procession for a revered Iranian military leader, and in December, an attack on a police station killed at least 11 officers.

The Iraqi and Pakistani governments rejected Iran’s justifications.

“Pakistan has always said terrorism is a common threat to all countries in the region that requires coordinated action,” the Pakistani statement said, describing it as “even more concerning that this illegal act has taken place despite the existence of several channels of communication between Pakistan and Iran.”

Iran’s actions came amid widespread fears that the devastating war in Gaza could become a broader and deadlier regional conflict. Already, it has set off a low-level conflict between Iranian proxy forces and the United States and other Western powers.

The United States, Britain and France denounced the Iranian attack in Iraq, which set off sirens at the U.S. Consulate and forced the airport in Erbil to suspend flights.

Since the war between Israel and Hamas began, Iran has been sending conflicting signals about its general intentions in the region.

Privately, Iranian officials have been saying they want to avoid a larger conflict. But they have also been making bullish public pronouncements about proxy military forces that the country is propping up in the region and their importance in keeping the pressure on Israel and its allies.

The Iranian-backed Houthis, operating from Yemen, have been disrupting global shipping by attacking vessels in the Red Sea, while Hezbollah has been launching strikes on northern Israel from Lebanon. Iraqi militias closely linked to Iran have targeted U.S. bases and camps in Iraq and Syria more than 130 times in the past three months.

In addition to hitting Pakistan and Iraq, Iran in recent days has also struck Syria. The Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack on the Iranian memorial procession, has a presence in Idlib. So far, there has been no public objection from the Syrian government, which is closely allied with Iran.

The strike in Pakistan was launched by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s semiofficial Tasnim News agency reported, and hit an area where the militant group that claimed responsibility for the attack on the police station in Rask, near Iran’s border with Pakistan, is believed to be based.

The missile strike on Iraq drove a wedge — at least temporarily — between Baghdad and Tehran.

Iraq filed a complaint with the U.N. Security Council over the Iranian “aggression,” the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday. And Iraq’s national security adviser, Qassim Al-Araji, called the Iranian explanation of its strikes “baseless,” using some of the strongest language Baghdad has lobbed against its neighbor.

“The house that was bombed belonged to a civilian businessman,” said Mr. Al-Araji, who rushed to Erbil from Baghdad a few hours after the bombing.

Mr. Al-Araji, who is the Iraqi government’s point man on a number of sensitive issues related to Iran, has a long history of working closely with Tehran and is rarely publicly critical. His comments on Tuesday suggested that Baghdad believed it was being undermined by its neighbor.

Those killed in the strike included Peshraw Dizayee, a Kurdish businessman; his daughter, Zhina; her babysitter, a foreign national; and a visiting business acquaintance, Karam Mikhail.

The strike on Erbil may have been an effort to convince Iranians that despite Tehran’s intelligence and security forces’ failure to prevent the attack on the memorial procession, the government was taking steps to punish the perpetrators, analysts said.

It is not the first time that the Revolutionary Guards have targeted Kurdistan. There were at least two attacks in 2022 and many during Iran’s 2019 protests, which Iranian government leaders said were being encouraged by Iranian dissidents in Kurdistan.

But the attack this week played into the fraught politics surrounding the Iraqi government’s effort to end the presence of American troops on its territory. They have been in Iraq since 2014, helping the country fight the remnants of the Islamic State and prevent its return.

Iran also wants the American troops to withdraw because it perceives their presence as a security risk, given the enmity between the Iranian and U.S. governments.

Iraq has been caught in the middle. The country’s Parliament — which includes many lawmakers with ties to Iran — recently voted to have the troops leave. After a U.S. strike killed a leader in an Iranian-linked militia in Baghdad, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani announced that he wanted to begin determining how the troops’ departure should be carried out, and set up a committee to work out the details.

He did not specify a date, but recent New York Times interviews with many of the people involved have suggested that, unlike in the past, when the Iraqi government said it wanted the troops to leave but did little to achieve that end, this time it was serious.

The strike on Tuesday could make the negotiations considerably more difficult.

One constraint in negotiating a departure — in addition to worries about an Islamic State resurgence — has been the Kurds, who have a close relationship with the United States and have benefited from the sustained U.S. presence. U.S. troops protected the Kurds in 2014, when Islamic State militants came within a few miles of the Kurdish capital. Kurdish leaders were already reluctant to approve the departure of U.S. troops, but the attack on the capital seemed to deepen that view.

“We don’t think that terrorism has ended, and last night’s event is an indication that instability in the region is still very much at stake,” said Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Kurdistan, who sharply condemned the attack on Erbil at a news briefing while attending the 2024 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Kamil Kakol from Sulimaniyah, Iraq.