Iran has wrapped up a large-scale naval exercise involving missile tests at a time of heightened tension with the United States. The U.S. downplayed the Iranian maneuvers as a “standard practice.”
Iranian state media said the navy drill that ended Tuesday spanned 2 million square kilometers of the Arabian Sea, extending to the entrances of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.
The drill involved successful tests of two upgraded missiles Monday, one of them a submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) named Nasir, and the other a guided anti-ship missile (AShM) called Dehlaviyeh. State media said an Iranian submarine also successfully test fired an advanced torpedo dubbed Valfajr on Tuesday.
Iranian media published video clips of the Dehlaviyeh missile and Valfajr torpedo hitting naval targets, but did not release images of the Nasir cruise missile test.
Reports quoted Iranian Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari as saying the naval exercise was aimed at upgrading Iran's defense capabilities and sending a message of “peace and friendship” to its neighbors. Those neighbors include Sunni-led Arab states that host U.S. military bases and have expressed concern about predominantly Shi'ite Iran's efforts to expand its regional influence.
Iranian military personnel prepare to fire a laser-guided anti-ship missile (AShM) called Dehlaviyeh as part of a major naval exercise. Iranian state media say the test happened Feb. 27, 2017. (Screen grab from IRIB News Agency video)
Latest tests of little concern
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have risen since President Donald Trump took office in January and vowed a tougher response to Iranian actions seen as threatening U.S. interests and those of its allies.
But the U.S. Defense Department sent VOA Persian a statement expressing no explicit concern about Tehran's latest show of force.
“Iranian naval forces, just like U.S. naval forces, conduct exercises as standard practice to train and maintain proficiency,” said Pentagon spokesman Christopher Sherwood. “It is prudent and standard practice for the U.S. military to be aware of other military operations near our forces both in this region and in any part of the world.”
But Sherwood added a cautionary note about the U.S. military's next moves in the Persian Gulf, without specifically mentioning Iran.
“U.S. military operations in the region continue to focus on the commitment to foster security and stability by maintaining a naval and air presence that deters destabilizing activities and upholds lawful maritime order,” he said.
Sharp response to missile test
The Trump administration had a sharper response to Iran's January 29 ballistic missile test, accusing it of undermining regional security and putting American lives at risk. Within a week, the administration imposed financial sanctions on 25 individuals and companies linked to the Iranian ballistic missile program and the elite Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran has maintained that its missile development program is consistent with U.N. Security Council resolution 2231 that endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
The resolution calls upon Iran not to “undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”
The Iranian government has denied Western accusations that its nuclear program is designed to produce weapons.
Iranian submarine prepares to fire a Valfajr torpedo as part of a large-scale navy drill. Iranian state media say the test happened Feb. 28, 2017. (Screen grab from Iranian military video)
A defiant gesture
Foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Washington-based Brookings Institution told VOA Persian's LateNews show that Iran's latest missile tests may be intended as a defiant gesture to Trump by a government that believes it has international law on its side.
“One interpretation of the tests is that the Iranians are trying to force Trump into a position where he has to acknowledge that missile launches are not covered by the nuclear deal, and therefore that the world is going to have to get used to Iran doing this in the Trump era,” O'Hanlon said.
Iranian state media said the Dehlaviyeh test was the first time homemade, laser-guided “smart” missiles had destroyed its target at sea. Smart missiles use sensors to track, lock on and intercept targets.
International Institute for Strategic Studies defense analyst Joseph Dempsey told VOA Persian the Dehlaviyeh missile is widely believed to be an Iranian copy of a Russian anti-tank guided weapon (ATGW) called the Kornet. He expressed skepticism of Iran's categorization of Dehlaviyeh as an anti-ship missile, saying it appears to “lack the characteristics and effectiveness associated with dedicated anti-ship missile systems, not least in terms of its limited range and guidance methods.”
Weapon with potential
O'Hanlon of Brookings said Dehlaviyeh has the potential to be a significant military asset to Iran.
“My best guess is that converting a modern Russian anti-tank weapon for use in an anti-ship capacity would be rather effective,” he said. “If you're firing an anti-tank missile, you're looking for big, heavy metallic objects. Ships are, of course, larger than tanks, and at sea, there are fewer objects [besides the target] in your field of view than on land.”
Iran's latest missile tests also may have been motivated largely by domestic considerations, O'Hanlon said.
“According to this view, Iran's navy drill is part of its ongoing effort to improve its missile force, and the country has people within its military who are committed to this kind of modernization and will keep doing it no matter what Washington does,” he said. “I would favor that second, simpler interpretation.”
Hooman Bahktiar of VOA's Persian Service contributed to this report.