Iranian Commanders Warn U.S. Leaders:
TEHRAN (Dispatches) -- Iran has begun wide-scale air defense drills, simulating a potential aerial invasion.
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."
The U.S. and Iran have a long troubled history in the Persian Gulf, where in 1988 USS Vincennes shot down civilian airliner Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 onboard. 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 a 3,000-strong force arrived in Saudi Arabia, 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 USS John C. Stennis entered the region amid the Great Prophet drills in December.
On Friday, a top commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) said the United States must act responsibly to protect the lives of its soldiers in the region, warning that Iran is ready to respond to any threat by using defensive and offensive measures.
"Washington has to act responsibly in protecting and not endangering the lives of American soldiers by avoiding any mistakes in the region, specifically in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz," Major General Gholam Ali Rashid said.
Rashid, commander of the IRGC's Khatam al-Anbiya Headquarters, added that Tehran does not seek war, but that branches across Iran's Army and IRGC forces are always prepared to defend Iran's interests.
He added that Iran's ability to repel any "provocative action" is increasing in a "coordinated manner".
Washington, along with its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, has sought to couple economic sanctions with the prospect of military action as part of a campaign of "maximum pressure" against Tehran.
General Rashid said "sending messages and words" were not enough to deter Iran's enemies. "Suitable measures and actions are needed", he added.
Iran has continued to hone its military capabilities, especially in shielding its skies. A recently-released Pentagon report found that despite decades of sanctions, Iran has succeeded in developing its missile arsenal, which is larger than that of any other Middle Eastern country.
"Iran has an extensive missile development program, and the size and sophistication of its missile force continues to grow despite decades of counterproliferation efforts aimed at curbing its advancement," the Defense Intelligence Agency said.
The report said 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 has employed such equipment in dealing aerial incursions at home, with the Army downing a U.S. Global Hawk spy drone over the Strait of Hormuz, reportedly with a 3rd-Khordad surface-to-air missile system. Earlier this month, Iran again downed what Sabahifard said at the time was a "foreign" drone over Mahshahr.
On Friday, Iran’s new indigenous air defense system, 15th Khordad 15th, was tested for the first time in real time combat against hypothetical enemy targets in the final phase of the air defense drills.
General Sabahifar said the massive maneuver underway in central Iran fulfilled its objectives and managed to eliminate all pre-determined targets.
He said Iran would make enemies regret any act of aggression against the country. "As we have successfully materialized our objectives during the ongoing drill, if the enemies entertain a dream, we will also make them regret their folly in the battlefield," he added.