When Iran and Pakistan traded airstrikes this week, both targeting what they said were militant camps, the exchange raised fears that the upheaval sweeping the Middle East was moving into new territory.

To Pakistan, which was hit first, it was important to send a clear message that violations of its sovereignty would not be tolerated. But the Pakistani military quickly followed its retaliatory action with another message — one that showed its desire to contain the tensions, a wish driven in no small part by the immense strain the country was under even before the Iran clash.

Pakistan signaled that it was seeking de-escalation by calling the two nations “brotherly countries” and urging dialogue and cooperation, language that Iran echoed in a statement of its own on Friday. Pakistan’s appeal, analysts said, underlined a plain fact: It could hardly be in a worse position to fight a war.

For two years, the country has been embroiled in an economic crisis and political turmoil that has directly challenged the country’s all-powerful military establishment. Terrorist attacks have resurged across the country. And already at odds with its archrival India, it has seen a souring of its once-friendly relations with the Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan.

“At a moment when Pakistan is experiencing some of its most serious internal turmoil in years if not decades, the last thing it can afford is more escalations and a heightened risk of conflict with Iran,” said Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute. “For Pakistan to be locked in serious tensions with not one or two but three neighbors — it’s a geopolitical worst-case scenario, bar none.”

The clash with Iran has come before widely anticipated parliamentary elections in Pakistan that are expected in early February, the first since former Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed in a vote of no confidence in April 2021. His ouster set off a political crisis that has rattled the very foundation of Pakistan’s politics, a winner-take-all game that has long been governed from behind the scenes by the country’s military.

Over the past two years, the ousting of Mr. Khan has awakened deep-seated resentment — particularly among young and middle-class Pakistanis — toward the country’s generals, whom Mr. Khan has blamed for his removal. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest in sometimes violent scenes. Protesters have breached the gates of the national army headquarters and attacked military installations across the country.

Months later, Mr. Khan was arrested — a move widely understood to be an effort by the military to sideline him from politics. He remains in jail, but just weeks before the election, his popularity is still strong. That support has infused the upcoming vote with a once unthinkable sense of uncertainty in a country where the military has typically paved the way for its preferred candidates.

Adding to the political unease, violence by insurgent groups that have attacked political and military targets alike has roared back over the past two years, with hundreds killed. The attacks have laid bare the precarious stability in the country and further eroded the public’s trust in the military. They have also fueled growing tension with the Taliban in Afghanistan, where some militant groups have found safe haven since the group regained power in 2021, while others have been pushed from Afghan soil into Pakistan.

At the same time, Pakistan finds itself in a difficult economic situation, heavily reliant on an International Monetary Fund loan that is keeping afloat an economy that would have trouble sustaining a prolonged military engagement.

In the current circumstances, analysts said, Pakistan’s military strategists are walking a very fine line.

“On the one hand, they faced the strategic dilemma that if Pakistan let this pass, that would have emboldened all of Pakistan’s adversaries, especially India,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “On the other hand, by adopting a confrontational posture and hitting back, Pakistan has risked a three-front dilemma.”

Still, the military exchange with Iran has shown that, even with the growing discontent toward Pakistan’s military, the country’s foreign policy remains firmly in the hands of the generals. Those military leaders seemed to follow a well-worn playbook in responding to a provocation by a neighbor with military force that falls short of provoking all-out war.

For decades, Pakistan has sporadically shelled Afghanistan’s border areas in what Pakistani officials describe as targeted attacks against Pakistani militants seeking shelter there. And in 2019, intense shelling and exchanges of gunfire between Pakistan and India along their disputed border initially threatened to spiral into a war between the two nuclear-armed nations, but that threat was ultimately contained.

In choosing separatists from the Baluch ethnic group as its target in Iran, Pakistan on Thursday mirrored the action that Iran said it had taken in attacking a militant group, Jaish al-Adl, inside the Baluchistan region of Pakistan. The group had attacked a police station in southeastern Iran on Dec. 15 and killed 11 officers.

Pakistan undertook the tit-for-tat retaliation “in the most careful, deliberate way possible in choosing to target Baluch militants — its own citizens — hiding out in Iran,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Those attacks were reported to have killed nine people.

The strikes and the diplomatic statement afterward “tried to thread the needle of deterring future action by Iran while also pointing to an off-ramp for de-escalation,” she added.

For those living in Baluchistan, however, the Iranian airstrike was a devastating reminder of the violence that has gripped the region for years.

A large, arid province in southwestern Pakistan straddling the Iran and Afghanistan borders, Baluchistan has faced five insurgencies since Pakistan’s founding in 1947, the most recent and enduring one underway since 2003. Those groups have staged violent attacks in the name of fighting political marginalization and the exploitation of the region’s resources.

Pakistan’s military has for years been the ruling power and gatekeeper in Baluchistan, which has been mostly barred to foreign journalists. The army and its militia allies have been widely accused of repression and human rights abuses as they fight insurgents to maintain control.

Now the Baluch people “feel caught in a war between two countries they can’t control,” said Malik Siraj Akbar, a Washington-based expert on the region. “Bleak social and political conditions in both countries fuel Baluch resistance, and these airstrikes risk pushing more toward armed groups, further destabilizing the region.”

Until recently, a military flare-up with Iran — the first exchange of missile fire between the two countries in recent memory — was seen as almost unimaginable, despite occasional border violations over the past several years.

Differences have emerged over the decades on issues like terrorism, a failed gas pipeline project, Iran’s close coordination with India and Pakistan’s ties to Saudi Arabia, a top Iranian rival for influence in the region.

But diplomatic relations remained largely cordial, even with the sectarian differences between Shiite Iran and predominantly Sunni Pakistan. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran began funding Shiite institutions in Pakistan. Any escalation in the clash between the two countries could inflame sectarian tensions and pose a serious internal law-and-order challenge in Pakistan.

Iran said it had carried out strikes this week in Pakistan, as well as in Iraq and Syria, to show it would take the fight to militant adversaries anywhere. Observers said the Iranian authorities were driven by a desire to show strength both domestically and abroad as they face internal challenges to their authority.

On Friday, though, Iran appeared to be heading toward the off-ramp that Pakistan had seemingly laid down. In a statement, Iran said that it “differentiates between Pakistan’s friendly and brotherly government and armed terrorists,” and that it would not allow those militants to “strain these relations” between the two countries.

Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting.

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