Iran launched massive military "wargames" on Monday, involving thousands of troops, aircraft and surveillance equipment aimed at testing the country's ability to repel an air attack against "hypothetical sensitive sites," according to its state news agency.
The maneuvers seem to have been planned before Iranian jets reportedly fired on an unmanned U.S. drone earlier in November, and come on the heels of Austere Challenge 2012 in Israel, the largest ever missile defense exercise organized by Israel and the U.S. that began in October.
The Iranians call their surface-to-air system "Mersad," or Ambush, says Gen. Farzad Esmaili, chief of the country's air defense headquarters, according to Iranian state TV. It is modeled after the U.S. Hawk system, and reportedly can lock on to a flying object 50 miles away and hit it from 30 miles away.
"The Iranians are demonstrating to themselves and the world that their air defenses are at the highest state of readiness," says Omar Lamrani, a military analyst with Stratfor.
"There's a psychological propaganda aspect to that, but there's also a real aspect to that," he says. "These exercises also serve the crucial role of training their pilots and training their air defense forces."
It is very difficult to believe that many of their claims are real, Lamrani adds. The Iranians say they have developed their own, improved version of the S-300 missile defense system, which Russia was close to selling to Iran before Israel and the U.S. lobbied to break the deal.
The alternative Iran boasts it created may actually be dummy trucks bearing worthless barrels, says Lamrani.
The maneuvers that began on Monday are more about demonstrating and developing existing capabilities, he says, which is particularly impressive with fighter jets that predate the Iranian revolution in the 1970s.
State-controlled Fars News Agency reported the "wargames" include U.S.-made F-4, F-5 and F-14 fighter jets, and Russian-made Sukhoi-24 fighters. The planes from the Iranian Air Force for Research and Studies will act in both defending roles, and as potential enemies.
But Iran continues to develop their capabilities, Lamrani says.
"What we know for sure is they are making progress," he says. "They are becoming more independent from foreign markets."
The games were scheduled to begin later in November, but seem to have been pushed up to Monday.
"These drills convey a message of peace and security to regional countries," said Iranian spokesman Shahrokh Shahram, according to a Reuters report. "At the same time they send out a strong warning to those threatening Iran."
The operating units will practice defending "hypothetical sensitive sites," Fars reports Shahram as saying.
"The other mission of the IRIAF planes is taking photographs from the entire wargames zone with high speed and precision and then transfering them to the operating central command of the wargames zone in the shortest time possible," said Brig. Gen. Hossein Chitforoush, deputy commander of IRIAF.
America's top military commander Gen. Martin Dempsey on Monday stated Iran's recent actions, particularly the Revolutionary Guard Corps attack on the U.S. drone, are part of a long line of disturbing activities. He cited Iran's sponsoring of terrorism, including supplying arms to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, as well as their active cyber program and efforts to develop nuclear energy that could be weaponized.
Dempsey used stronger language than previous Pentagon assessments when referring to the attack on the drone.
Iranian jets firing on the unmanned Predator was "a hostile act," says Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to a Pentagon statement.
"We're absolutely certain that we were within international airspace, so their attack on the unmanned Predator -- despite their assertions otherwise -- was clearly a hostile act against our assets," he said while speaking aboard a military aircraft on Monday, according to the statement. The general was in South Korea this weekend and in Australia on Monday as a part of an official trip to the western Pacific nations.
Two Russian-made SU-25 fighter jets opened fire in two separate bursts on the U.S. Predator drone roughly 16 miles off the Iranian coast just before 5 a.m. on Nov. 1, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on Friday.
It is unclear if the fighters intentionally avoided hitting the drone, or if they missed.
The U.S. has previously flown drones over Iran, such as the RQ-170 that Iran claims to have hijacked to land last year. The Pentagon claims that drone malfunctioned.
Little says the drone Iran attacked in November was conducting "routine" but classified maritime surveillance 16 miles off the coast.
That proximity still might have provoked the Iranians into engaging, particularly from the Revolutionary Guard Corps, known for acting more brashly than other military units, says Lamrani.
Dempsey's choice of words could indicate that the U.S. does not plan to retaliate, says Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow for the 21st Century Defense Intiative at the Brookings Institution.
The U.S. military used similar language to condemn North Korea for reportedly sinking the South Korean ship "Cheonan" in 2010, he says.
"That too was 'hostile' and even more, by analogy, yet we didn't retaliate," says O'Hanlon. "This is in that category. But the Iranians are on notice that we consider this quite unfriendly."
"I don't think it moves the needle too much beyond that," he says of a potential escalation between the U.S. and Iran.
But Lamrani believes the two countries are approaching a "red line" with this most recent attack on the unmanned drone.
"Any further escalation beyond this is basically shooting at manned aircraft," he says. "Anything like that would definitely elicit a response. It's a dangerous game, it's a dangerous situation with how far [Iran] is willing to take it."
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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org