The Iranian armed forces are conducting a sizable exercise with domestically-produced drones. This is the first time that such an exercise has been conducted by the Islamic Republic. It comes at a time of extremely heightened tensions with the United States and on the one year anniversary of the assassination of MG Qassem Soleimani. 

The Iranians have been producing hundreds of drones in a show of force. In recent years, Iranian forces and their proxy militias have increasingly used unmanned aerial vehicles in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and in the Strait of Hormuz.

Mahmoud Mousavi, the Iranian deputy chief of army operations, said that the exercise, which took place in Semnan province, included surveillance, aerial targeting, and destruction of objectives using air-to-air missiles, hitting land targets using bombs and missiles, and employing loitering munitions, also known as “kamikaze drones.”

“Flying the army’s naval force drones over vessels in the country’s southern waters and flying precision loitering munition to destroy long-distance high-value targets deep in enemy territory will be among other drill objectives,” Mousavi told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

As a result of the arms sanctions imposed against it, Iran has been dumping a huge amount of cash into its homegrown ballistic missile program.  

On January 6, Iran released photos via IRNA of what was characterized as an Azarakhsh (Lightning), air-to-air missile. It was the first time this missile has been launched from a drone. However, the missile, while a copy of the U.S. AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile, is actually an air-to-ground anti-tank weapon. Iran claims that the missile carries a 500-lb warhead, when in fact the entire missile weighs a reported 155-lbs. 

Most military analysts agree that usually Iran greatly exaggerates its weapons’ capabilities.

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Azarakhsh (Lightning), air-to-air missile

Mohammad Baqeri, the chief of staff of the armed forces of Iran, issued the usual threats via Iran’s state-run media. “The fingers of our heroic armed forces are on the trigger, and if enemies commit the slightest mistake, the armed forces will surely respond fiercely,” he said. 

On Monday, President Trump reversed an earlier decision to have the Nimitz aircraft carrier return to Washington state after a long deployment. The Nimitz and its carrier group have been ordered to remain in the Persian Gulf. 

“Due to recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other government officials, I have ordered the USS Nimitz to halt its routine redeployment,” Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller had said Sunday in a statement.

“No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America.”

Tensions in the region were further inflamed on Monday when armed Iranian troops seized a South Korean tanker for “polluting” the Gulf. The Korean government sent naval vessels into the region in response to the seizure. Also on Monday, Iran announced that it will begin to increase uranium enrichment to 20 percent. This is in clear violation of earlier mandated limits.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, Palestinian militants from Islamic Jihad and Hamas organized their first-ever joint exercise, which Israeli media described as a show of force organized by Iran. In that exercise, the militants launched eight rockets into the Mediterranean.