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How Iran’s attacks are heightening fears of a wider Middle East war in three maps

A Kurdish man walks past debris
Iraq's Kurdistani stronghold of Arbil was hit by a missile strike launched by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps on Wednesday - SAFIN HAMID/AFP

Tit-for-tat cross-border exchanges between Pakistan and Iran this week marked the latest escalation in the Middle East, a region already dangerously on edge as a result of Israel’s war with Hamas.

The fallout from the terror group’s Oct 7 attacks and Israel’s military response has spiked tensions in a range of simmering flashpoints involving Israel’s arch-foe Iran, leading diplomats to fear a wider conflict may yet erupt.

Those concerns were heightened in recent days when Iran began to flex its military muscles, attacking targets in a string of other countries.

Meanwhile, Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen continued to attack commercial vessels in the Red Sea, and Israel continued to exchange regular cross-border fire with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy group.

Tehran has long used proxies and militias as its weapon of choice in the region, but this week’s attacks have also seen it take a direct role using long-range conventional weapons.

MV Genco Picardy following a Houthi drone attack
MV Genco Picardy following a Houthi drone attack

Iran has launched missile attacks on “spy headquarters” and “terrorist” targets in Syria and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, where it claimed to hit Israeli espionage headquarters.

Then Tehran hit what it said were Sunni militants hiding within Pakistan.

‘The attacks are a warning’

“The dynamics of these strikes illustrates the variety of different security threats that Iran perceives it is facing at this time,” said Gregory Brew, an analyst who specialises in Iran at the Eurasia Group, a geopolitical risk firm.

“This is what connects everything… they are all intended to send a variety of messages to a variety of actors.”

A missile unveiled by Iran is launched in an unknown location
A missile unveiled by Iran is launched in an unknown location - WANA NEWS AGENCY

Other analysts echoed that view, saying Iran’s tactics were probably designed to set red lines for different militant groups it considers security threats around its borders, but also to Israel and the West.

Tehran anticipates tensions with its number one enemy, Israel, are “going to increase” this year with the Israel-Hamas war set to drag on, said Sanam Vakil, a director with the Chatham House think tank.

“It’s putting down these red lines to show Israel directly what it will and will not respond to,” she told the AFP news agency.

“Iran wants to assert its position,” added Prof Nausheen Wasi, of Karachi University. “The attacks are a warning to the international community rather than to Pakistan.”

Israel and Hezbollah’s exchanges

Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon have traded fire across Israel’s northern border since Hamas’s terror attack last year.

The barrages have led Israel to evacuate several towns along the frontier.

Each side has so far held back from bringing their full military might to bear, in an apparent attempt to ensure the situation does not spiral out of control, but scores of people are still thought to have been killed.

On Jan 8, a senior Hezbollah commander was killed in southern Lebanon in a suspected Israeli strike.

Suspected Israeli attacks also killed a high ranking Iranian general in a Damascus neighbourhood on Christmas Day and then on Jan 2, a senior Hamas official in Beirut.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, prays next to the coffin of senior adviser for Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Sayyed Razi Mousavi, who was killed in an Israeli air strike outside the Syrian capital Damascus
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, prays next to the coffin of senior adviser for Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Sayyed Razi Mousavi, who was killed in an Israeli air strike outside the Syrian capital Damascus - WANA NEWS AGENCY
Smoke rises from a destroyed apartment as civil defense workers search for survivors following a massive explosion in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon
Smoke rises from a destroyed apartment as civil defense workers search for survivors following a massive explosion in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon - Bilal Hussein

Those strikes came as Houthi rebels based in Yemen routinely attacked commercial shipping in the Red Sea, carrying out dozens of assaults since November in response to Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

Attacks by hijackers, drones and missiles have caused major disruption to world shipping, forcing many vessels to take a safer, but far longer and more expensive route around southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

Last week, the relentless assaults prompted the US and UK to hit more than 60 targets across Yemen in an attempt to deter the Houthis and safeguard freedom of navigation in the region.

A fighter jet taking off from USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) during flight operations in response to increased Iranian-backed Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea
A fighter jet taking off from USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) during flight operations in response to increased Iranian-backed Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea - ZACHARY ELMORE

However, the rebel group have continued to strike at shipping routes, leading US forces to hit Houthi targets on Thursday – the fifth military intervention of its kind in a week.

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