West Asia Roundup: January 2024
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Apart from the Houthi strikes on commercial ships in the Red Sea and counter strikes by the US & UK navies on the Houthi targets as well as the unfolding complexities of the ongoing Israel-Hamas War, the Iranian strikes inside Pakistan at the Baloch separatists who had been engaged in cross border attacks and killings of Iranian policemen. Tehran considers those groups like Jaish al Adl being supported by Pakistan and US to destabilize Iran. This happened when Iranian Foreign Minister met the Pakistani Prime Minister. But Pak army had to be seen to be responding to the violation of their sovereignty hence it also carried out attacks on anti-Pakistan Baloch groups i.e. Balock Liberation Army, inside the Iranian territory thus satisfying the domestic track. However, it was surmised that both sides agreed to the face saving while messages were conveyed and did not want to escalate it any further. Besides due to its deep domestic crisis Islamabad could ill afford an expanded adventure. ISIS also claimed responsibility for blasts killing 90 mourners in Kerman at the 2nd anniversary of the killing of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. Tehran retaliated with counter strikes.

As the situation seemed to worsen and US continuing to accuse Tehran for escalations in the region, President Raisi visited Ankara to confer with his counterpart President Erdogan.


External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar visited Tehran (Jan 14-15) to confer with his counterpart and the Iranian leadership with regard to bilateral relations and evolving and deteriorating regional situation. During his meeting with FM Dr. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian discussions on bilateral, regional and global issues, Political cooperation, connectivity initiatives and strong people-to-people ties were held. Specific initiatives were launched for consistent follow up on Chabahar port and connectivity and high-level mechanism was established. He also called on President Raisi and later in Kampala met the Iranian Vice President on the sidelines of NAM Summit. The Joint Press statement by EAM stated “In particular, we discussed India's involvement in the development and operation of the Chabahar port, a joint project with a joint vision of connectivity. I emphasized India's commitment to this project, and discussed how we can establish a firm, sustainable and long-term roadmap, for India's continued involvement over the coming years. Given the importance of this project for both nations, I emphasized the need to monitor its progress under the direct supervision of the political leadership. We also exchanged perspectives and assessments on certain regional and global issues and developments. Both of us are concerned about the recent events in West Asia, which some call Middle East; and we emphasized the importance of preventing further escalation of violence and hostilities.” They also agreed on the counter terrorism measures which were afflicting both nations and the region.

Iran-Pakistan Tensions

The decade long skirmishes between Iran and Pakistan have escalated after Iranian forces on 16 January 2024 launched four missiles at Koh-i-Sabaz village targeting Jaish Al-Adl targets. The attack on Pakistani territory coincided on the same day Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met in the World Economic Forum in Davos and navies of both states were conducting joint exercises in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. Pakistan downgraded diplomatic relations; withdrew its envoy from Tehran and barred Iranian ambassador from returning. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated that, “on Pakistan, none of the nationals of the friendly and brotherly country of Pakistan were targeted by Iranian missiles and drones. The so-called Jaish al-Adl group, which is an Iranian terrorist group, was targeted”. He added, “The group has taken shelter in some parts of Pakistan’s Balochistan province. We’ve talked with Pakistani officials several times on this matter.”

On 18 January, Pakistani forces targeted Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) targets by carrying out air strikes on seven locations using Chinese built JF-17 and J-10C fighter jets and UAV Wing Loong II under operation, ‘Marg Bar Sarmachar’ killing nine people. China offered mediation between both sides. The US blamed Iran for violating the sovereign borders of three of its neighbours. India maintained its uncompromising position towards terrorism and noted that, “we understand actions that countries take in their self-defence.”

In their efforts to de-escalate the bilateral tensions, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and his Pakistani counterpart, Jalil Abbas Jilani held phone conversation and agreed to cooperate and coordinate closely on counter terrorism. Both leaders also discussed the return of their ambassadors. On 29 January, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian met with Foreign Minister Jilani for in-depth talks in Islamabad. On 27 January, nine Pakistani labourers were killed in Saravan city in Iran by unidentified armed men.

Iranian Strikes in Iraq and Syria

The Islamic State (IS) on 3 January carried out two suicide bombings targeting the death anniversary of IRGC general, Qassem Soleimani in Kerman. The attacks killed around 90 people and wounded at least 284 others. IRGC on 15 January launched ballistic missiles towards an Israeli spy base in Iraq’s Kurdish region and struck targets linked to IS in northern Syria. In Iraqi Kurdistan, eight explosions were reported killing four people and injuring six others. Iraq in response to the attack recalled its ambassador from Tehran for consultations and summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires. US Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller described the missile attacks as “reckless”, adding that they “undermine Iraq’s stability”. Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdish region, condemned the attack on Erbil as a “crime against the Kurdish people”. Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Nasser Kanaani pressed that while it respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states, it was using its “legitimate and legal right to deter national security threats”.

Regional Escalation

Iranian Foreign Ministry blamed Israel for missile attack in Damascus on 20 January that killed five IRGC military advisors and a number of Syrian forces. A day after the attack in Damascus, Iran backed armed groups launched ballistic missile and rocket attack on Al-Assad airbase in western Iraq.

On 28 January, drone attack at a US military base in northeast Jordan killed three American soldiers and injured 34 others. Iran denied involvement in the drone attack. Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Nasser Kanaani stated that, “As we have clearly stated before, the resistance groups in the region are responding [to] the war crimes and genocide of the child-killing Zionist regime and… they do not take orders from the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Iraqi armed group, Kataib Hezbollah on 31 January announced suspension of hostile operations against US troops. The attempt to de-escalate is reportedly motivated by desire to not “embarrass” the Iraqi government. Notably, on 27 January, Iraq and the US held the first round of talks to discuss the timeline to reduce the presence of foreign troops. There are currently 2,500 US troops stationed in Iraq.

The US in mid-January relisted the Houthi group as “specially designated global terrorists” in response to the attacks by the group on shipping vessels in the Red Sea. The US forces launched strikes on 14 missiles launched from Yemen on 18 January. Houthi spokesperson, Mohammed Abdelsalam noted that, “We will not give up targeting Israeli ships or ships heading towards ports in occupied Palestine … in support of the Palestinian people.” On 22 January, the US and the UK in coordination with Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands launched a new round of strikes targeting Houthi underground storage site, missile and surveillance capabilities.

Ebrahim Raisi’s Visit to Ankara

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on 24 January. Both leaders agreed to take measures to contain destabilization in the West Asian region and counter terrorism. Raisi and Erdogan touched upon Israel’s attacks on Gaza; efforts towards fair and lasting peace in the region; immediate ceasefire and curbing spillover effects in the Red Sea.

The US on 27 January has approved the sale of F-16 jets to Turkey after Turkish parliament ratified Sweden’s NATO membership by 287 for and 55 against votes on 23 January. The US Department of State notified the Congress about the US$ 23 billion agreement to sell F-16 jets to Turkey along with US$ 8.6 billion sale of F-35 fighter jets to Greece. The sale to Turkey includes 40 Lockheed Martin F-16s and equipment to modernize 79 of its existing F-16 fleet. The sale to Greece includes 40 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters and related equipment.

Iran’s Satellite Launch

Iran on 28 January successfully launched three satellites using its carried rocket built by the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics. The satellites, one weighing 32 kg namely, Mahda and two nano satellites weighing less than 10 kg each, namely, Kayhan-2 and Hatef-1 were sent to a minimum orbit of 450 kms using Simorgh carrier rocket. The nano satellites were used to test narrowband communication and geo-positioning technology and Mahda to test the accuracy of the Simorgh rocket in delivering multiple cargoes into space. Earlier on 20 January, Iran launched the Soraya satellite into orbit at around 750 kms above Earth’s surface with a three-stage rocket. The tests occurred in the backdrop of escalating tensions between Iran and US-Israel axis.

Executions in Iran

Iranian authorities on 23 January executed a man, Mohammad Ghobadlou that ran over and killed a policeman and injure five others during the anti-government protests following Mahsa Amini’s death in 2022. Human rights activists have called it an unfair trial. Ghobadlou was initially sentenced to death in November 2022 and convicted of “corruption on earth”. The execution verdict was maintained by the Supreme Court in February 2023. On 29 January, Iran executed four Kurdish men claiming their links with Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. The men were convicted of illegally entering Iran from Iraq’s northern Kurdish region to attack a factory in the central city of Isfahan that produces equipment for the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics.

The US and the UK imposed sanctions on network of people targeting Iranian opposition activists for assassination under Iran’s orders. At least 11 people have been included in the sanctions list and the network is reportedly directed by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

Jordanian Air Raids in Syria Kill 10 Civilians

Jordanian forces on 18 January carried out air strikes in Arman and Malh towns in southeast Syrian province of Sweida killing 10 civilians. Jordan has been carrying out crackdowns on weapons smuggling and drug smuggling operations at the Jordan-Syria border. Syrian government and Iran aligned militias have generated billions of dollars by smuggling of highly addictive Captagon drug transiting through Jordan into the Gulf States. Jordanian military in December 2023 killed number of drug smugglers near the Syrian border. In the December 2023 incident, one Jordanian border guard was killed and one other was injured.

Egypt Hosts Somalia President

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on 21 January met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. President Sisi assured that Egypt will not allow anyone to threaten Somalia or affect its security. Sisi criticized Ethiopia’s agreement with Somaliland to obtain access to sea and establish marine force base. Ethiopia on 1 January 2024 signed an MOU with Somaliland aimed to strengthen security, economic and political partnership. According to the agreement, Ethiopia would be the first state to recognise Somaliland as an independent nation. Somalia has condemned the MOU calling it illegal and violation of international law that compromises its sovereignty. Ethiopia retorting to Egypt’s condemnation asserted that the MOU is a commercial agreement aimed to secure access to the sea and it does not intend to annex land.

Developments in Israel

The relatives of hostages held by Hamas stormed into a parliamentary committee session in Jerusalem on 22 January to place pressure on Israeli lawmakers to intensify efforts to secure their release. There is a growing anger over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to agree to deal with Hamas aimed at hostage release. On 29 January, several members of the Israeli government joined a far-right conference calling for the resettlement of the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank. The conference, organized by the right-wing Nahala organisation on Sunday night and dubbed “Settlement Brings Security and Victory”, called for new Jewish settlements to be built in the Palestinian territories. Reportedly, 12 ministers from Likud party as well as controversial leaders, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich participated in the discussions. Israel’s brutal assault of Gaza Strip continued throughout January 2024 killing more than 26,000 Palestinians until the end of the month.

Violence in Disputed Border between Sudan and South Sudan

On 1 January, six people including one senior local administrator were killed in the Abyei region. The oil rich region along the shared border is claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. rival factions of the Dinka ethnic group – Twic Dinka from South Sudan’s neighbouring Warrap state, and Ngok Dinka from Abyei have engaged in number of escalations over dispute about the location of the administrative boundary. On 29 January, clashes in the disputed region between Sudan and South Sudan re-erupted killing 52 people including women and children in Abyei region. Reportedly, armed youth from South Sudan’s Warrap state carried out raids.

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