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Iran launches underground ballistic missiles for first time

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards claim to have launched ballistic missiles from ‘the depths of the Earth’ today during the last day of military exercises near sensitive Gulf waters.

The launches come a day after the Guards struck a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier with volleys of missiles near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping lane for a fifth of world oil output.

State television broadcast aerial footage of the latest daylight exercises in the desert showing bursts of flames, smoke and then dust before what appeared to be four projectiles climbing into the sky.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said in a statement on its Sepahnews website that it was ‘the first time in the world’ that such an exercise had been carried out.

The statement did not elaborate on the claim or provide any of the missiles’ specifications.

It hailed ‘the successful launch of ballistic missiles from the depths of the Earth in a completely camouflaged way’ as an ‘important achievement that could pose serious challenges to enemy intelligence organisations’.

The Guards said bombs were also released from Sukhoi Su-22 fighter-bombers to target predetermined positions on Bani Farur Island in Iran’s territorial waters.

‘These launches were carried out without the platform and usual equipment,’ IRGC aerospace chief Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said on state television.

The exercises – dubbed ‘Prophet Mohammed 14th’ – began on Tuesday and come at a time of high tension between Tehran and Washington.

The US military has responded by putting troops in the region on heightened alert and said Tehran’s missile launches were irresponsible.

There have been periodic confrontations in the Gulf in recent years between the Guards and the US military, which has accused the Guards’ navy of sending fast-attack boats to harass U.S. warships as they pass the Strait of Hormuz.

Tehran, which opposes the presence of US and other Western navies in the Gulf, holds annual naval war games in phases in the strategic waterway, the conduit for some 30 per cent of all crude and other oil liquids traded by sea.

Yesterday satellite images showed the mock-up aircraft carrier being towed by a tugboat to the strait from the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas.

Footage of a broadcast on state television showed the Guards’ air and naval forces readying for an attack off the country’s southwest coast.

Speedboats skimmed across the water in formation before ground forces fired cannons and a missile was launched from a helicopter.

The mock-up of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier came into view with rows of dummy fighter jets on either side of its landing strip.

The television then cut to rockets being fired out to sea from the backs of trucks, before showing damage to the hull of the mock-up aircraft carrier.

Another missile fired from a helicopter left a trail of smoke before appearing to smash into the side of the fake warship.

Armed forces were then seen rappelling onto the deck of the vessel, before around a dozen speedboats circle around it.

‘What was shown today in these exercises, at the level of aerospace and naval forces, was all offensive,’ Guards commander Major General Hossein Salami told state television.

The war games come only days after Tehran accused US fighter jets of harassing an Iranian commercial airliner in the skies over Syria.

At least four passengers on board the Mahan Air plane were injured in Thursday’s incident, after the pilot took emergency action to avoid the warplanes.

The drill, in a waterway through which 20% of all traded oil passes, underlines the lingering threat of military conflict between Iran and the U.S. after last summer saw a series of incidents targeting oil tankers in the region. 

In January, a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad and Tehran responded by firing ballistic missiles targeting American forces in Iraq.

While the coronavirus pandemic has engulfed both Iran and the U.S. for months, there have been increasing signs of a confrontation as America argues to extend a years-long U.N. weapons embargo on Tehran that is due to expire in October. A recent incident over Syria involving an American jet fighter approaching an Iranian passenger plane also has renewed tensions.

Iranian commandos fast-roped down from a helicopter onto the replica in the footage aired Tuesday from the exercise called ‘Great Prophet 14.’ Other footage showed fast boats encircling the mock-up, kicking up white waves in their wake.

Iranian troops also fired anti-aircraft batteries at a drone target in the exercise from a location that state television described as being near the port city of Bandar Abbas. Troops also fired missiles launched from trucks on land and fast boats at sea, as well as shoulder-fired missiles.

The Guard will use ‘long-range ballistic missiles with the ability to hit far-reaching aggressor floating targets’ during the drill, said Abbas Nilforoushan, the Guard’s deputy commander for operations, according to Guard website sepahnews.com. 

That suggests the drill could see a repeat of what happened in 2015, when the Guard mock-sunk a replica. 

It wasn’t immediately clear if all the footage was from Tuesday, as one overhead surveillance image that appeared to be shot by a drone bore Monday’s date.

The replica resembles the Nimitz-class carriers that the U.S. Navy routinely sails into the Persian Gulf from the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the waterway. 

The USS Nimitz, the namesake of the class, just entered Mideast waters late last week from the Indian Ocean, likely to replace the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Arabian Sea.

It remains unclear when or if the Nimitz will pass through the Strait of Hormuz or not during its time in the Mideast.  

The USS Abraham Lincoln, deployed last year as tensions initially spiked, spent months in the Arabian Sea before heading through the strait. The Eisenhower came through the strait early last week.

The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, a spokeswoman said on Monday the Navy remains ‘confident in our naval forces’ ability to defend themselves against any maritime threat’ after satellite photos showed the fake carrier being moved into place.

‘We cannot speak to what Iran hopes to gain by building this mockup, or what tactical value they would hope to gain by using such a mock-up in a training or exercise scenario,’ Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich told The Associated Press then. ‘We do not seek conflict, but remain ready to defend U.S. forces and interests from maritime threats in the region.’

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