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Climbing in the Middle East: “Aé ;state of regional conflict

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Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Tehran in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, October 20, 2023.

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In recent weeks, Iran has bombed several of its neighbors. First, training camps of the Islamic State armed group near Idlib, Syria, then a site in Iraqi Kurdistan allegedly linked to the Israeli Mossad, and finally bases of the separatist organization Jaish al-Adl, in the Balochistan region of Pakistan.

Pakistan responded by sending missiles into Iranian territory, which caused nine casualties. This is the first time that the two countries have clashed and it is also the first time since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s that Iran has been targeted by a missile.

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Balochistan, a region with a distinct cultural and historical identity, is divided between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Tehran and Islamabad accuse each other of not acting against Baloch separatists in their respective countries.

This is a very dangerous situation. The longer the war in Gaza continues, the greater the risk that the situation will spiral out of control, notes the director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, Ali Vaez.

We are already in a state of regional conflict. It is no longer just a war between Israel and Hamas. It has spread to many other theaters of operations.

A quote from Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group

Middle East, the eternal conflict

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Middle East, the eternal conflict

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Usually, the shadow war between Iran and Israel is fought by proxy, thanks to pro-Iranian militias such as Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen or the Iraqi Shiite militias.

This time, by carrying out almost simultaneous attacks in three different countries, Iran is showing that it is capable of handling distinct issues, without worrying about UN borders, in this Middle East which it considers to be its strategic depth, supports Pierre Boussel, associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research, in Paris.

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Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has claimed responsibility for a ballistic missile attack on Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which killed at least four civilians.

The Hamas assault on October 7 marked a turning point. Since then, American forces based in Iraq and Syria have been attacked on more than 150 occasions by Iranian-backed groups, reports Ali Vaez. Around fifty Americans were injured, even though there had been no aggression against American bases for several months, more than a year even, in the case of Iraq.

These attacks were claimed by a group calling itself the Islamic Resistance (al-Muqawama al-Islamiya) and which brings together Iraqi Shiite militias that are part of the resistance axis, such as Kataeb Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and the Badr organization.

Added to this are attacks by other groups trying to take advantage of the situation, such as the separatist group Jaish al-Adl, in Baluchistan, which killed around ten Iranian police officers in December, which then led to Iran to attack the group in Pakistan.

The Islamic State armed group also took advantage of the disorder to launch an attack on January 3 that killed 84 people in Kerman , in southern Iran, during a commemoration at the tomb of General Qassem Soleimani, killed by the Americans in 2020.

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A family mourns their dead during the funeral ceremony for the victims of the January 4 attack 2024, in Kerman, Iran.

In recent weeks, Israel has killed a Revolutionary Guard commander in Syria, a Hamas commander in Beirut, and a Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon. Then, the Americans killed a commander of the Iraqi militias allied with Iran in Baghdad, in addition to bombing the Houthis in Yemen.

All that said together represents a series of setbacks for the Iranians, which places them in a weak position, specifies Ali Vaez.

They were desperate to change this perception and ensure they projected an image of strength .

A quote from Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group

The use of the Kheibar Shekan, a new medium-range ballistic missile (1,450 km) used during strikes in Idlib, Syria, contributes to this objective of deterring enemies by showing its military capabilities.

In addition to this show of force intended for the adversaries of the Islamic Republic, there is also a message internally, as much for Iranian public opinion that for the Arab street, which criticizes Iran for not putting into practice its speeches of support for the Palestinian cause, considers Pierre Pahlavi, assistant professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.

The Iranians must show that they are not sitting idle, believes Mr. Pahlavi. Attacking relatively easy targets in Baluchistan, Kurdistan or Syria is one way of saying that they are playing their role.

< p class="Text-sc-2357a233-1 imohSo">It's a bit of a way of providing minimum service, but at the same time it's part of this shadow war that the Iranians and Israelis are waging by using customers to hurt themselves. periphery.

A quote from Pierre Pahlavi, assistant professor at the Royal Military College of Canada

The regime also wants to project an image of firmness towards its population, in the run-up to parliamentary elections which will take place in March. The year was difficult, with protests linked to the heavily repressed Woman Life Freedom movement and the poor economic situation, notes Nakissa Jahanbani, assistant professor at the Counterterrorism Center at the West Point Military Academy.

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A couple sits on a model tank in Talaghani Park on January 20, 2024 in Tehran, Iran.

However, they must dose the attacks well, she notes. Thus, they do not aim to cause a high number of deaths, knowing that the cost of reprisals would be too great.

At the same time, the Iranians are seeking to know the limits, believes Pierre Boussel. Iranian regime tests. He experiments. He launches probes and observes. His priority is to know how far he can go.

A quote from Pierre Boussel, associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research, in Paris

And what, precisely, is this limit that must not be reached?

For the situation to change, there would need to be an element which represents a turning point in the conflict, estimate the researchers.

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Protesters burn UK and US flags during a demonstration in solidarity with the Palestinian people and Yemeni-backed rebels by Iran, in front of the British embassy in Tehran, January 12, 2024.

For Iran, the red line would be an attack on its territory, explains Ali Vaez.

The reason why Tehran created this network of partners in the region is to prevent an attack on Iranian soil, he notes. If his territory is attacked, he will set the entire region on fire to make it clear that this must never happen again.

An expansion of the war in Lebanon would also be perceived as a direct threat, to which Iran would respond without restraint, believes Mr. Vaez.

On the other hand, the line would be crossed if Iran or one of its partners used a weapon that, for Israel, would cross the line, says Nakissa Jahanbani. They have revealed some pretty worrying weapons recently, she notes. If they decided to use them, Israel would not stand idly by.

This could also happen if concrete evidence is found directly linking Iran to the October 7 attack. The exact nature of this direct involvement is what would tip the balance, judges Ms. Jahanbani.

Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei , has always expressed his support for the Hamas operation, but he has also rejected any involvement of his country.

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“We embrace the foreheads and arms of the astute planners and courageous young Palestinians,” Ali Khamenei said in the days following the attack on October 7.

However, some analysts believe that the red lines continue to recede in this conflict. What would have been unacceptable a few years, or even a few months ago, is not necessarily unacceptable today.

A lot of these red lines were traced when we were not engaged as we are now, notes Nakissa Jahanbani.

In reality, none of the main players have any interest in a regional explosion, according to Pierre Pahlavi. The Iranians have everything to gain from contained tension, from the fact that the fever exists, but that it does not rise very high, he explains. If there were a generalized conflict, the very existence of the regime could be called into question, he observes.

The Israelis , for their part, depend on the American ally, which does not want to engage in a new war.

Everyone has an interest in maintaining the boiling crisis, but no one has an interest in the liquid spilling out of the pot.

A quote from Pierre Pahlavi , assistant professor at the Royal Military College of Canada

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