Iran Holds Major Air War Games As U.S. Military Moves Through Top Oil Route

Iran has begun widescale air defense drills, simulating a potential aerial invasion amid regional unrest and a powerful U.S. Navy warship sailed near its shores.

Speaking on the sidelines of the 98-Guardians of Velayat Sky joint exercises, Iranian Army Air Defense Brigadier General Alireza Sabahifard said Thursday that the maneuvers were being held across an area of some 416,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of the U.S. state of California—mostly in the northern province of Semnan. He said his forces "will practice the toughest and most realistic combat conditions," simulating a conflict in the Persian Gulf, especially the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most important oil chokepoint.

"I advise enemies not to put us to the test, because conducting such a test and entering the sky of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as shown in the past, will lead to no achievements for them, except humiliation," Sabahifard said, noting his forces would employ "world-class" and "cutting-edge" systems.

"If the enemy intends to invade, attack or even infringe on our country's skyline, which is one of our red lines," Sabahifard warned, "we can deal with it."

iran air defense system military drills
An Iranian Mersad-16 surface-to-air missile system is seen at a test range at a testing range in Semnan province, Iran, November 21. Iran has invested heavily in producing its own air defenses and a domestically-produced system was believed to have taken out a U.S. spy drone over the Persian Gulf in June. Islamic Republic of Iran Army

The U.S. and Iran have a long-troubled history in the Persian Gulf, where in 1988 the country experienced what was by far the deadliest incident involved the Navy's USS Vincennes shooting down civilian airliner Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 onboard. Though the rivals' longstanding feud briefly abated with a 2015 nuclear deal, President Donald Trump's decision to leave the accord and impose sanctions has led to renewed insecurity across these critical waters.

As U.S. soldiers from what was to reportedly be a 3,000-strong force arrived in Saudi Arabia, part of the Trump administration's efforts to deter Iran, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln sailed this week through the Strait of Hormuz for the first time since it was deployed to the region in May. Large Iranian military maneuvers and U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf have previously coincided, as they did when Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier USS John C. Stennis entered the region amid the Great Prophet drills in December.

In the months since Trump ordered the latest deployment, the U.S. has accused Iran of sabotaging oil tankers in the nearby Gulf of Oman and of conducting a missile and drone operation against oil facilities in its regional rival Saudi Arabia. Tehran has denied these allegations and has attempted to shore up regional ties across the Arab world.

At the same time, Iran's continued to hone its military capabilities, especially in shielding its skies. A recently-released Defense Intelligence Agency report found that "Iran operates a diverse array of SAM and radar systems intended to defend critical sites from attack by a technologically superior air force" and is "also fielding more-capable, domestically developed SAM and radar systems "to help fill gaps in its air defenses."

"Iran will modernize its IADS [integrated air defense systems] with new air surveillance radars, SAMs, and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems," the report said. "Once the UN arms embargo ends, Tehran can purchase advanced fourth-generation fighter aircraft. Iran will also develop and field more-capable UAVs, including armed platforms."

Iran has employed such equipment in dealing alleged aerial incursions at home, with the Revolutionary Guard downing a U.S. Global Hawk spy drone over the Strait of Hormuz, reportedly with a 3rd-Khordad surface-to-air missile system. The incident nearly prompted Trump to conduct retaliatory strikes on Iranian military sites.

Earlier this month, Iran again downed what Sabahifard said at the time was a "foreign" drone over Mahshahr. In a statement issued shortly after the incident, U.S. Central Command denied it was one of theirs. Still, the Pentagon has continued to boost its presence in the region, further putting Iran on edge as a geopolitical rivalry played out.

us aircraft carrier strait hormuz persian gulf
The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln transits the Strait of Hormuz as an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter from the "Nightdippers" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 5 lifts off from the flight deck, November 19. The vessel entered the world's most important oil chokepoint months after being deployed to the region in response to a perceived heightened threat from Iran. Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Stephanie Contreras/U.S. Navy

Thursday's air drills also came as the country and its allies faced heightened tensions and outbreaks of violence. Intense nationwide protests have rocked Iran and Arab partners Iraq and Lebanon, where demonstrations have targeted government corruption and economic woes and forces friendly to Tehran have been subject to repeated strikes by archfoe Israel.

A particularly deadly Israeli operation targeted Iran's closest regional partner, Syria, on Wednesday. A day after Israel blamed Iranian forces in Syria for launching rockets toward the occupied Golan Heights, Israel conducted what it called "wide-scale strikes of Iranian Quds Force & Syrian Armed Forces."

Official Syrian media outlets reported that air defenses had intercepted most of the "hostile targets," but others damaged homes, killing two civilians and wounding others. The U.K.-based, anti-government Syrian Observatory for Human Rights found some 21 dead, including five Syrian soldiers and members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force and allied militias, mostly non-Syrian.

One Syrian observer with knowledge of the situation confirmed the death of five Syrian soldiers and two civilians, sharing with Newsweek the names and photos of the victims. The source said that one Hezbollah fighter was also injured, but contended that the Iranian positions were clear at the time of the Israeli attack.