After hitting targets in neighboring Pakistan, Iraq and Syria with missiles, Iran talked tough on Wednesday, playing up — to friends and foes alike — not only its military capabilities but its determination to strike enemies at will.
“We are a missile power in the world,” Iran’s defense minister, Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, told reporters after a cabinet meeting, according to state media. “Wherever they want to threaten the Islamic Republic of Iran, we will react, and this reaction will definitely be proportionate, tough and decisive.”
Iran’s show of strength was meant to reassure conservatives domestically and militant allies abroad, and to warn Israel, the United States and terrorist groups that Iran will strike back if attacked, according to two Iranians affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards who were familiar with the planning, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters. Supporters of Iran’s authoritarian clerical regime have been incensed by recent attacks on Iran that made it appear vulnerable, demanding a powerful response.
Yet for all the missiles launched and all the belligerent words, Iran once again appeared to stop short of a major escalation that might further inflame an intensifying regional conflict centered on the war between an Iranian-backed armed group, Hamas, and Iran’s regional archenemy, Israel. Analysts say Iran wanted the attacks to be measured, flexing its muscles without getting into a direct fight with Israel, the United States or their allies.
By Tuesday morning, murals and banners appeared around Tehran praising the missile attacks and vowing vengeance against Iran’s enemies. At Palestine Square, a mural on a building depicted a missile being fired, with a caption warning in Hebrew and Persian, “Prepare your coffins.”
Some conservative Iranians celebrated the missile strikes as a defiant warning to regional enemies.
“The message was clear,” Ruhollah Ahmadzadeh Kermani, an analyst in Tehran, said Tuesday on social media. “The Islamic Republic is right next to your ear. If Israel’s fake regime makes a strategic mistake, it won’t see the next 25 days, not 25 months or years.”
Iran fired missiles into three countries that are, to varying degrees, friendly to it: Syria, Iraq and Pakistan. That makes military retaliation unlikely, though the attacks ruffled feathers — Iraq and Pakistan both recalled their ambassadors to Tehran, and Pakistan barred Iran’s ambassador, who was abroad, from re-entering the country.
According to Iran, the attack in Syria targeted the Islamic State; the one in Pakistan struck another terrorist group, Jaish al-Adl; and the one in Iraq, in the northern Kurdish region, was aimed at what Tehran says is an Israeli base for intelligence gathering.
In the past, Iran has often lashed out at its enemies by proxy, relying on the armed groups it funds and supports — including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen — and sometimes disavowing any involvement in attacks.
But this week, Iran acted on its own and announced its actions, publicly framing the missile strikes as vengeance. It said it had attacked targets connected to major terrorist attacks, including one earlier this month that was the country’s deadliest ever. It also said it was retaliating for the assassinations last month of two senior Iranian commanders in Syria, for which Iran has blamed Israel.
Gen. Amirali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Forces who commanded the Iranian attacks, told state television on Tuesday that Israel’s covert attacks on Iran’s nuclear and military facilities, and the assassination of its nuclear scientists, were planned from a facility in Erbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, that was struck. Iran has also accused Israel of involvement in a recent attack by the Islamic State.
“We had to confront this and retaliate the blood of our martyrs,” General Hajizadeh said.
Israel has not responded to the claim that the target in Erbil was an Israeli spy outpost. Iraqi officials rejected the accusation, saying only civilians had been killed, including a businessman, his 1-year-old daughter, her babysitter and another businessman visiting the house.
While the Iraqi government does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, the Kurdish regional government has a long history of close ties with Israel. Two senior U.S. official told The New York Times in 2022 that Israel had conducted intelligence operations against Iran from Kurdistan; days earlier, Iran had fired a barrage of missiles at targets in northern Iraq that it said were linked to Israel, in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on an Iranian drone factory.
The Iranian strike in Syria on Monday targeted the Islamic State, and was in retaliation for suicide bombings this month in Kerman, Iran, that killed nearly 100 people. Iran and its proxies spent years battling the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. The group claimed responsibility for the Kerman bombings, but U.S. officials say it was probably the work of an affiliate based in Afghanistan, not militants in Syria.
President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria lodged no objection to the missile attack this week, which struck a part of the country controlled by a rebel group. For a decade, Mr. Assad has relied heavily on Iran to fight the Islamic State and other opposition forces in his fractured country, where other countries — including Israel, the United States and Turkey— have dropped countless munitions, acting unilaterally in the name of fighting terrorism.
On Tuesday, Iran attacked what it said was a base in Pakistan for Jaish al-Adl, an armed separatist militant group from the Baluch minority that both countries have struggled for years to contain. The group, which operates in a remote, mountainous region that straddles the boundary between the two countries, claimed responsibility for a December attack that killed 11 security officers in Rask, a town in southeastern Iran, near the border.
On Wednesday, a colonel in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was shot and killed in the border region, and Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility.
Pakistan and Iran have traded accusations in the past of sheltering militants along their shared border, and Iran argued that weak Pakistani border control measures had helped the militants carry out the December attack.
Pakistan denounced the Iranian missile strike. But Iranian media reported Wednesday that the two countries’ foreign ministers spoke by phone and discussed sharing intelligence on Jaish al-Adl.
The risk of adding further tension to its relationships seemed to be worthwhile for an Iranian government eager to erase the impression left by its security failings.
The Islamic State bombings in Kerman, in particular, rattled a country that has tried as much as possible to maintain stability by keeping Iran’s regional conflicts from bleeding onto Iranian soil. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who is also the commander in chief of Iran’s armed forces, has steered clear of direct conflict with the United States or Israel. But he pledged a forceful response after the bombing, which several Iranian leaders rushed to blame on Israel.
Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House, a London-based research organization, said the fact that Iran suffered such a deadly terrorist attack on its own soil suggested the risks of its activities across the region. Iran has tried to “export” its conflicts abroad “rather than manage them closer to home,” she said. Yet “the great irony for Iran,” she added, “is that being so present beyond its borders has attracted high-level security risks inside Iran.”
To Iranians who despise Iran’s leadership for its political repression, corruption and economic mismanagement, the retaliatory strikes were no more than empty chest-thumping.
“Security isn’t provided by missiles,” said Ali, 55, a disabled veteran of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, arguing that official negligence was to blame for the killings in Kerman, his home city. “This regime’s biggest mistake was that they forgot the people. They think they can stick around by relying on missiles.”
Leily Nikounazar and Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting.