Iran Holds War Games to 'Blind' Enemies Amid U.S. Nuclear Standoff

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has conducted fresh military drills in the Persian Gulf, as fears grow that the diplomatic impasse over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal might collapse into armed confrontation.

IRGC naval, air and land forces have been conducting joint drills this week, Iranian state media reported, which IRGC officials said included the use of indigenous smart bombs, cruise missiles, drones, and ballistic missiles.

IRGC chief Major General Hossein Salami described the drills—named Payambar-e Azam 17, or "The Great Prophet"—as "precise" and as showcasing the "quality, effectiveness and accuracy of the systems," according to the Mehr News Agency.

The commander of IRGC naval forces, Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, told reporters on Tuesday that the second day of exercises were designed to test Iranian defense of islands in the Persian Gulf.

"Today, we conducted an exercise in defending the islands and showed that we will destroy the enemy before approaching the islands," Tangsiri said, according to Mehr. "Our war game was to destroy the enemy before it can reach our shores."

"The message of this maneuver to our enemies is that we will never allow a country to threaten Iran's territorial waters, we will definitely blind any enemy who seeks to threaten the country and cut the hands that want to encroach on Iran," the rear admiral said.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran—rarely low for decades—have again been ramping up over the failure to agree a deal to revive the JCPOA, which former President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

The seventh round of talks in Vienna ended earlier this December without a deal, and it is unclear when the next round will begin.

European JCPOA signatories—the U.K., France and Germany, collectively known as the E3—warned soon after in a joint statement that time was running out.

"There are weeks not months before the JCPOA's core non-proliferation benefits are lost," the joint statement warned. "We are rapidly reaching the end of the road for this negotiation."

Iran's lead representative Ali Bagheri Kani has accused the European powers of negotiating in bad faith. "Some actors persist in their blame game habit, instead of real diplomacy," he wrote on Twitter after the E3 statement.

"We proposed our ideas early, & worked constructively & flexibly to narrow gaps; diplomacy is a 2-way street."

The U.S. too, is sounding the alarm. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan admitted that talks were "not going well" after the most recent round of discussions, acknowledging that the U.S. did not see a clear route back into the accord.

Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley told CNN he hoped that Iranian negotiators would resume talks "relatively soon," though he said the window for a deal was closing. "If they continue at their current pace, we have some weeks left but not much more than that, at which point, I think, the conclusion will be that there's no deal to be revived," he said.

Absent a diplomatic solution, the U.S.—with Israeli backing—may fall back on a military strike to slow Iran's nuclear progress. The New York Times reported this month that the White House has already been considering military options in case talks collapsed for good.

On December 9, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters: "Based on the outcome of the last round of talks and the ongoing advancements in Iran's nuclear facilities, we are laying the path for...the groundwork for another path entirely."

Additional sanctions are also on the table, Psaki said. "If diplomacy cannot get on track soon, and if Iran's nuclear program continues to accelerate, then we will have no choice but to take additional measures to further restrict Iran's revenue-producing sectors."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that a diplomatic solution is still the best option, though added that Washington, D.C. is "actively engaging with allies and partners on alternatives."

Iran drills near Strait of Hormuz 2012
This file photo shows Iranian forces engaged in drills near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran on January 1, 2012. This week, the IRGC has been holding exercises in the Persian Gulf region. Mohsen Shandiz/Corbis via Getty Images