In just two days this week, Iran fired missiles – first at the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq and Syria and then at Pakistan – in attacks that could further escalate tensions in a tense region.
Monday's attacks in Syria targeted suspected IS targets. In Erbil, Iraq, Tehran said it also hit a Mossad facility on Monday. According to Kurdish authorities, at least four people were killed.
Then on Tuesday, Iran fired missiles into Pakistan's Balochistan province. Their target was the separatist group Jaish al-Adl, but at least two children were killed. Pakistan launched retaliatory attacks on Thursday morning, killing at least nine people in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province, just across the border.
These rapid attacks by Iran on three different neighbors have raised concerns about regional escalation and raised questions about the timing of Tehran's decision to launch cross-border attacks given Israel's ongoing war on Gaza.
On the surface, the alleged targets of Iranian attacks in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan appear to have little in common. But there is a common thread linking Tehran's actions – even if the attack on Pakistan may have been a reckless and ill-advised gamble, analysts say.
“I think this has to do with Iran's overall threat perception in the region increasing. And at the same time feel the need to react – due to pressure from within and without,” said Hamidreza Azizi, visiting researcher at SWP Berlin.
In late December, Israel killed Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a top commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard in Syria, in a rocket attack outside Damascus.
Earlier this year, at least 90 civilians were killed and dozens more injured in two explosions in the city of Kerman among mourners attending a memorial ceremony for late IRGC chief Qassem Soleimani. It was the deadliest armed attack on Iranian soil in decades. Soleimani was assassinated two years earlier in a US drone strike.
The bombing was later claimed by ISIL in Afghanistan. However, Iran accused the group of acting in collusion with Israel, setting the stage for its recent attacks on the group's alleged facilities in northern Syria and the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, Erbil.
Last month, Jaish al-Adl also claimed responsibility for an attack on a police station in the Iranian city of Rask in Sistan-Baluchestan, in which 11 Iranian security forces were killed.
“If you look at the series of incidents,” said Azizi, “they conveyed the image of the weakness of the Iranian intelligence service and the lack of seriousness and willingness to respond.” So the calculation in Tehran may have been that their credibility was based on the The game would be over if this continued.
“And that’s why they decided to show an answer all at once.”
But beyond the desire to show strength on multiple fronts at once, analysts warn against confusing events along the Pakistani border with those in Gaza.
While both Pakistan and Iran regularly accuse each other of allowing armed groups to invade each other's territory, even exchanging mortar shells in 2014, they have maintained military and diplomatic ties for years .
On the same day that Iran attacked Pakistan, the two countries conducted joint naval operations in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. In addition, just hours before the Iranian attack, the country's foreign ministry released images of its minister Hossein Amirabdollahian shaking hands with Pakistan's interim prime minister Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
These long-standing ties, coupled with anonymous Telegram messages viewed by Al Jazeera that purportedly came from sources close to the IRGC, have led to speculation that the attacks may have been arranged and even coordinated in advance between Iran and Pakistan. According to some Telegram messages, the attacks were originally planned for last week.
However, accepting this interpretation of events overlooks Pakistan's own international position: far removed from the storm raging in the Gulf, relatively removed from the ideological competition that unites many of its key players, and jealously proud of its status as a nuclear power.
“The (attack) is costly for Pakistan, especially given its relations with India (Islamabad's long-time nuclear rival), and that is precisely why I do not believe Pakistan would ever have agreed to coordinate with Iran in this way,” Abdolrasool said Divsallar, a senior researcher at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“Iran and Pakistan need each other,” he said. “Even though Pakistan has hit back, I expect the escalation to remain contained and limited.”
China, the most important ally of Iran and Pakistan, has already offered to mediate, and the neighbors also have platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which they are both members, on which they can engage diplomatically.
It can hardly be disputed that the attack on a nuclear power was intended to send clear messages to the United States and its allies, not least Israel. However, analysts say it was also intended for personal consumption.
“The credibility and prestige of the Islamic Republic had already been on the wane, even among its own supporters,” Azizi said, adding that it had become essential to preserve the remaining support, much of which remains hardliners.
While the likelihood that these recent attacks will contribute to a larger regional conflict may be limited, it is not entirely existent. A day after Pakistan fired on Iran, neither side took further military action against the other. But by attacking a nuclear power, even a seemingly friendly one, Iran has sent a message that will resonate far beyond Balochistan.