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An Iranian airstrike inside Pakistan on Tuesday that Iran said targeted militant training camps has left Pakistani officials facing a difficult decision about whether to retaliate and potentially expand the unrest that has swept the Middle East.

Relations between Pakistan and neighboring Iran hit a new low after Iran’s attack in the restive Balochistan region, with Pakistan reporting civilian casualties, including children, and warning that violation of its sovereignty could have serious consequences. On Wednesday, Pakistan expelled the Iranian ambassador in Islamabad and recalled its own ambassador to Iran.

In a statement, Pakistan said it “reserves the right to respond” to what it called an illegal and unprovoked attack.

“The responsibility for the consequences will fall squarely on Iran,” he added.

But beyond protests and diplomatic warnings, it was not immediately clear whether Pakistan, reeling from political and economic crises and heading for parliamentary elections next month, is in a position to strike back militarily or enter a protracted conflict with Iran. .

Iran has become emboldened since the war in Gaza began in October, using proxy forces against Israel and its allies and raising the risk of a spiraling regional conflict. On Tuesday, Tehran used its own military to attack both Pakistan and Iraq in response to what it said were terrorist attacks inside Iran, exacerbating tensions in the region.

“If Pakistan responds, it risks being drawn into conflicts in the Middle East that it has avoided until now,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador who is now a diplomacy scholar. “If you don’t retaliate, you will look weak again and that will have consequences for the prestige of your armed forces.”

Muhammad Ashfaque Arain, former air marshal of the Pakistan Air Force, noted the delicate situation Pakistan found itself in, with an interim government in charge until elections.

“The Iranian attack is a very serious event,” he said. “The fact that there is no elected government complicates the response.”

Arain noted that with the Iranian attack on Pakistani territory, Pakistan was facing troubled relations with three of its neighbors. While India has long been an adversary, Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan have also deteriorated in recent months, with Pakistani officials accusing the Afghan Taliban of providing shelter to militant groups, including their ally the Pakistani Taliban, a charge which the Afghan group has rejected.

Pakistan’s recent policy of expelling undocumented foreigners, mostly Afghans, has further strained relations.

Over the years, both Iran and Pakistan have accused each other of harboring militants along their shared 559-mile border.

Tehran points the finger at Jaish al-Adl, a militant group operating in southeastern Iran and on the Pakistan-Iran border, saying it has carried out attacks inside Iranian territory. Established in 2012, the group emerged from the remains of Jundallah, a Sunni militant organization that had declined after Iran captured and executed its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, in 2010.

On December 15, Jaish al-Adl attacked a police station in southeastern Iran, killing 11 officers. Shortly after the attack, Iranian officials He blamed Pakistan’s weak border control measures. and claimed that militants had crossed from Pakistan to carry out the assault.

Pakistan, in turn, has accused Iran of supporting separatists in Balochistan, a southwestern province of Pakistan rich in oil and other natural resources that has been the scene of an insurgency for decades. Pakistani officials also cite the 2016 arrest of an Indian naval officer in Balochistan as evidence that Iranian-backed Indian espionage is supporting the Baloch insurgency.

Tuesday’s attack was not the first time Iranian forces attacked inside Pakistan, but it was the deepest attack inside Pakistani territory. In 2021, Iran recovered two Iranian soldiers who were being taken hostage by Jaish al-Adl within Pakistani territory. In 2017, the Pakistan Air Force shot down an Iranian drone.

The latest Iranian attack, amid rising political tensions in Pakistan ahead of elections scheduled for Feb. 8, was apparently timed to take advantage of that turmoil, analysts said.

Imran Khan, the former prime minister who accuses the Pakistani military of overthrowing his government, is in prison. His supporters have unleashed a barrage of criticism against the country’s military, which has struggled to contain the former prime minister’s popularity.

Ahmed Quraishi, an Islamabad-based analyst who focuses on the Middle East, underscored that context. “The timing is extremely important and unsettling for Pakistan amid a protracted political crisis that has strained state institutions,” he said.

Iran appears to see “a weakness in Pakistan,” Quraishi added. “I don’t think Pakistanis can afford to let this incident pass without a response. But retaliation, when it occurs, will be swift and maintain an element of surprise.”