* Drills across half of country as U.S.-Iran tensions high
* Involve 8,000 troops, test planes, defence systems -media
* Iran jets fired on U.S. drone over Gulf Nov. 1, U.S. says
By Yeganeh Torbati
DUBAI, Nov 12 Iran launched military drills
across half the country on Monday, warning it would act against
aggressors less than a week after Washington accused Iranian
warplanes of firing on a U.S. drone.
The manoeuvres take place this week across 850,000 square
kilometres (330,000 square miles) of Iran's northeast, east, and
southeast regions, Iranian media reported.
About 8,000 elite and regular army troops will participate,
backed by bombers and fighter planes, while missile, artillery
and surveillance systems will be tested, they said.
Played out against a backdrop of high tension between the
United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme, the
"Velayat-4" manoeuvres will involve the biggest air drills the
country has ever held, Iran's English-language Press TV said.
Western experts have challenged some of Iran's military
assertions, saying it often exaggerates its capabilities.
"These drills convey a message of peace and security to
regional countries," Shahrokh Shahram, spokesman for the
exercises, told Press TV on Monday. "At the same time they send
out a strong warning to those threatening Iran."
Last week, the U.S. Pentagon said Iranian planes opened fire
on an unarmed U.S. drone over international waters on Nov. 1.
Iran said it had repelled "an enemy's unmanned
aircraft" violating its airspace.
Senior researcher Pieter Wezeman of the Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute said an international
arms embargo imposed against Iran meant the country was using
outdated military equipment, including aircraft.
"The U.N. embargo on supplies of most types of major weapons
to Iran is blocking Iranian military modernisation," he said.
"Iran is more and more falling behind in military terms."
But London-based defence analyst Paul Beaver said Iran's
military should not be underestimated, describing it as "a
pretty impressive organisation".
"They are busy out there modifying, adapting, doing things
to their technologies. They have made the most of what they
have," he said.
Western powers have imposed sanctions on Iran's oil trade to
press it to halt nuclear work they fear is aimed at developing
the capability to build nuclear bombs. Iran denies the charge,
saying its atomic activities are purely for peaceful purposes.
The United States and Israel have not ruled out military
action if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute.
Although the Iranian air drills come just days after the
Pentagon's announcement, the exercises appear to have been
planned well in advance.
In September Farzad Esmaili, commander of the army's air
defence force, said Iran was planning a large-scale air drill in
Various radar and other fixed, tactical and airborne
surveillance systems would participate, Esmaili told state news
agency IRNA on Thursday. The exercise will also test bombers,
refuelling planes and unmanned aircraft, Esmaili said.
Iranian media said on Monday that F-4, F-5, F-7, and F-14
fighters would take part.
Shahram told IRNA the drills would also focus on improving
coordination between Iran's military and the elite Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps.
On Sunday, Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Amir Ali
Hajizadeh said Iran believed the U.S. drone was gathering
intelligence on oil tankers off its shores.
Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Guards' top commander, said his
forces had acted well in repelling the drone. "If such
intrusions take place in the future, we will protect our
airspace," Jafari said on Sunday, according to Press TV.
Iranian officials have threatened to strike U.S. military
bases in the region and target Israel if the country is
Iran has carried out a number of military simulations this
year, including the "Great Prophet 7" missile exercises in July.