Iran has showcased its advancing missile and drone capabilities in a demonstration of the lengths it can take to strike perceived threats. But in targeting extremist groups and an alleged spy base in neighboring countries, Tehran also showed there are limits to how far it is willing to go for now.
The strikes launched by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on January 15 and 16 made use of sophisticated missiles, violated the territorial sovereignty of Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, and were clearly intended to send a message.
"We are a missile power in the world," Iranian state media quoted Defense Minister Reza Ashtiani as proclaiming. "Wherever [enemies] want to threaten the Islamic republic, we will react, and this reaction will definitely be proportionate, tough, and decisive."
The debut of medium-range ballistic missiles in at least two of the attacks was also widely seen as a warning to Tehran's archenemy, Israel, that it is in striking distance.
Tensions between Iran and Israel have soared amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip. Multiple Iranian proxies and partners have entered the fray against Israel in support of the Palestinian cause and the Iranian-backed Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.
Iran openly supports the so-called "axis of resistance" -- Tehran's term for the extremist groups and even state actors it guides to varying degrees in opposition of Israel. Many in the axis are now in possession of Iranian or Iranian-derived missiles, but while Tehran may have established a "ring of fire" around Israel, it would prefer not to jump directly into it, analysts say.
Sitting on the sidelines of the fight it leads has presented some problems for Tehran, explains Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
"At a time when the rest of the members of the so-called axis of resistance are taking more aggressive actions in the region, Iran's absence would come with a very high cost of prestige for Tehran," Azizi told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "In addition, within the framework of the theory of deterrence, the authorities of the Islamic republic believe that if [threats to Iran] are not responded to, it will cause more conflict."
Experts say that could explain the IRGC's missile and drone strikes this week, which showed that Iran is willing to use the growing firepower at its disposal to hit back at rogue enemies -- and potentially against Israel.
"Iran is engaging in several fronts at once, but not in the same manner," Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told RFE/RL. "Public ballistic-missile operations from Iranian territory conveys a different message to a different audience than does proxy escalation."
Taleblu says that the more effective Iran's missiles become, the more they will be used to settle conflicts. But at times, he said, Iran "feels comfortable, or confident, or benefits from an overt attack showing its hand and capabilities versus not, as is the case in the tried-and-true proxy strategy."
In what Tehran called Iran's longest-ever missile strike, sophisticated Kheibar Shekan ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel were used on January 15 to attack the "terrorist bases" of the Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups in northwestern Syria.
The same night, in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdistan region, Kheibar Shekan missiles and drones struck what the IRGC claimed was a "spy headquarters" operated by Israel. The Kurdistan region's Security Council has vehemently rejected Iran's claim.
And on January 16, IRGC missiles and drones targeted what the Foreign Ministry called "an Iranian terrorist group" in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan.
The attacks were justified by Tehran as its "legitimate and legal right to deter national security threats," the ministry said.
IS this month claimed responsibility for a twin suicide bombing that killed at least 94 people and injured more than 280 in the southern Iranian city of Kerman.
Jaish al-Adl, the U.S.-designated terrorist group targeted in Pakistan, has been accused by Tehran of carrying out attacks in Iran, including one on a police station in the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province in December that left 11 officers dead.
Tehran has also accused Israel of involvement in the Kerman bombings, which Israel denies, as well as of killing IRGC commanders.
"?Despite not telling Iraq or Pakistan about the strike in advance and writing off their sovereignty, the [Iranian] regime felt sufficiently confident that whatever target it struck would not be able to kinetically respond and hold Iran accountable," Taleblu said.
Pakistan and Iraq did condemn the strikes on their territories, with Islamabad answering on January 18 with air strikes against separatist groups allegedly hiding out on Iranian territory. But Taleblu said he saw Pakistan's strikes "more as an attempt to respond to Iran while providing a face-saving line of retreat."
Directly confronting Israel would come with a much higher level of risk, and Iran is already making good on its threats against Israel, according to Taleblu.
"Just because it is not overtly attacking Israel in a manner or with a weapon or with the publicity that would invite its own destruction does not mean the Islamic republic has not found ways to strike at the Jewish state, which is usually indirectly and with proxies," Taleblu said.
But for now, he said, the degree of direct Iranian involvement "is still likely to be limited until a borderline existential crisis or the gutting of deterrent."
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