February 12, 2021

Iran prepared to deter and defend against a military strike while increasing leverage for talks with the Biden administration

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The Iranian armed forces conducted a series of large-scale exercises in January to prepare for and deter an attack in the last days of the Trump administration. These exercises follow Tehran ramping up its nuclear program to pressure the Biden administration and set conditions for anticipated negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran appears to have been concerned that these actions and a desire to set back the nuclear program in the Trump administration’s final days might prompt either the US or Israel to launch a military strike. The regime conducted a dramatic array of military exercises and high-level inspections of the units and capabilities it would need to defend against and respond to such a strike. The armed forces revealed in that process a glimpse of the approaches they would take in such a conflict.

The exercises began on January 2, 2021, and concluded on January 23, and another began on February 11. They involved ground, aviation, naval, and air units from almost all of Iran’s military services. The participation of the most senior commanders from the conventional military (the Artesh) and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) underscores the high priority the regime places on reinforcing deterrence and signaling Iranian capabilities.

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These exercises coincide with and were followed by an uptick in aggressive Iranian-backed activities abroad. Iranian proxies in Iraq launched a kamikaze drone attack toward Riyadh on January 23, and the al Houthi movement has increased its tempo of drone attacks into Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. The Israel Defense Forces have reportedly assessed that Lebanese Hezbollah is preparing for a *limited escalation against Israel to enhance its deterrence. And Iranian agents or proxies may be responsible for an *explosion near the Israeli embassy in New Delhi on January 29 and *plots to attack the Emirati embassies in Ethiopia and Sudan (which were disrupted by the arrests of the plotters in Ethiopia).

The relationship between the exercises and these external activities is unclear. IRGC Commander Hossein Salami *stated that Iran must use “offensive and defensive” methods to deter foreign adversaries on January 8. The regime does not likely expect the Biden administration to attack it at this point. These post-inauguration activities are more likely intended to deter a possible Israeli strike (potentially with support and participation from the Gulf states) prompted by regional fears that the Biden team will concede too much in potential negotiations or otherwise abandon its regional allies, unlikely though such a strike would seem.

To the extent that members of the Biden team expected Iran to deescalate its violent activities after they took office (even if Tehran continued to escalate its violations of the nuclear deal in pursuit of leverage), the continuation of attacks abroad suggests that Iran has opted to maintain its confrontational posture. Iranian military activities may also be aimed as much or more at regional countries than at the United States. The regime’s rhetoric reinforces this assessment. Salami has viciously *condemned the Gulf states for normalizing ties with Israel in recent days, saying such diplomatic moves will bring these countries to the same “precipice of fire” as Israel.

The exercises’ content reflects how Iran envisions a potential conflict with the US and its regional partners. The regime would likely use drones and missiles to attack enemy ground assets, neutralize air defense systems, and damage critical infrastructure. The Artesh and IRGC practiced kamikaze drone attacks against enemy air defense systems and high-value targets—an increasingly prominent component of Iranian military strategy. The regime previously used kamikaze drones to attack Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq crude-processing plant in September 2019 and could target similar infrastructure again. The IRGC simulated attacking an enemy ground base with drones and missiles during one of the recent exercises in January.

The regime would also likely target enemy naval assets with fast attack craft and missiles. The armed forces practiced attacking American naval vessels around the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman during the exercises. The IRGC Navy mobilized around 1,400 light and semi-heavy surface vessels. The Guards use swarms of small surface vessels to overwhelm and conduct hit-and-run attacks against large enemy naval ships. The Artesh and IRGC also practiced using ballistic and cruise missiles and special forces to attack enemy vessels and disrupt command and control.

The net effect of conducting these exercises, which spanned much of the Iranian Persian Gulf coastline and involved three of five IRGC naval districts and two of three southern-facing air defense zones, was to bring the relevant units to near-combat readiness. The exercises thus also likely served as cover for a partial mobilization in preparation for a possible US or Israeli-Gulf state attack. The Iranians clearly did not attempt to preempt an attack, but some of the activities rehearsed could have supported preemptive operations—particularly the drone attacks, small-boat swarms, missile launches, and airborne and air assault operations.

The following is a UpdateThe activities with date ranges listed below were cut off in a previous version.list of the exercises and other noteworthy military activities from January 1 to February 11.

  1. January 2. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami and IRGC Navy Commander RADM Alireza Tangsiri *visited Abu Musa island in the Persian Gulf to inspect the readiness of the forces stationed there. Salami said that the IRGC Navy can deploy mines, including via drones, to counter submarines.
  2. January 5–6. The Artesh *conducted its first large-scale combat drone exercise in Semnan Province, involving “hundreds” of drones, to practice combat operations and reconnaissance. The Artesh reported that it bombed ground targets with 500-pound MK-82 low-drag, general-purpose aircraft bombs; destroyed a dummy target with an air-to-air Azarakhsh missile fired from a Karrar drone for the first time; fired precision, air-to-surface missiles from Ababil drones; and trained launching kamikaze drone attacks from surface vessels against high-value targets inside enemy territory. Officials *claimed that Artesh drones have an operational range of 2,000 kilometers and can “disrupt and deceive [enemy] radars.” All four Artesh services participated in the exercise—the Ground Forces, Navy, Air Force, and Air Defense Force. Armed Forces General Staff Chief IRGC Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri and Artesh Commander Maj. Gen. Abdol Rahim Mousavi *attended the exercise.
  3. January 6. The IRGC 4th Sarallah Naval District *conducted an exercise with around 700 light and semi-heavy surface combatants around Bandar-e Asalouyeh, Bushehr Province in the Persian Gulf. Local, specially trained Basij Organization members participated. The Basij militia functions as a reserve force, primarily for the IRGC Ground Forces and IRGC Navy. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami and IRGC Navy Commander RADM Alireza Tangsiri attended the exercise.
  4. January 8. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami and IRGC Navy RADM Alireza Tangsiri *attended the unveiling of an IRGC Navy strategic missile base at an unspecified location around the Persian Gulf coast. Salami claimed that the IRGC missile bases have precision munitions able to “pass through enemy electronic-warfare equipment.”
  5. January 9. The IRGC 2nd Noah Nabi Naval District *conducted a military exercise with around 700 light and semi-heavy surface combatants around Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. Local, specially trained Basij Organization members participated.
  6. January 13–14. The Artesh Navy *conducted an exercise in the Sea of Oman that included firing torpedoes from a domestically built submarine for the first time, launching cruise missiles from land- and naval-based platforms, operating combat and reconnaissance drones, and training naval special forces along the coast. The exercise included Pelican and Simorgh drones. One purpose of the exercise was promoting coordination among the Artesh Navy’s components. The Artesh Navy also incorporated the regime’s largest military vessel, the Makran, and Zereh missile-launching vessel into its arsenal. The Makran is a logistics ship able to collect information and support combat vessels and special forces operations. It also has a helipad, which can hold drones and five to seven helicopters. Armed Forces General Staff Chief IRGC Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, Artesh Commander Maj. Gen. Abdol Rahim Mousavi, and Artesh Navy Commander RADM Hossein Khanzadi attended the exercise.
  7. January 15–16. The IRGC Aerospace Force *conducted a two-day military exercise in Semnan Province, practicing attacking a hypothetical enemy base and naval targets with drones and missiles. The IRGC Aerospace Force simulated using drones to disrupt enemy air defense systems and fired Dezful, Zelzal, and Zolfaghar missiles. The IRGC Aerospace Force also tested long-range, anti-ship ballistic missiles. Armed Forces General Staff Chief IRGC Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, and IRGC Aerospace Force Commander Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajji Zadeh attended the exercise. Salami stated that the IRGC seeks the capability to target American aircraft carriers and warships with ballistic missiles.
  8. January 19–20. The Artesh Ground Forces *conducted a two-day exercise around Iran’s southeastern coast, featuring the 55th Airborne Brigade, 65th Special Forces Brigade, and 223rd Rapid-Reaction Brigade with combat and transport support from the Artesh Ground Forces Aviation and Artesh Air Force. The 55th Brigade conducted a joint offensive operation for the first time, involving parachuting drills from Lockheed C-130 military transport aircraft and using Soviet-made BMP-2 amphibious infantry fighting vehicles to attack coastal targets. Chinook heavy-lift helicopters dropped divers from the 65th Brigade off the coast to attack naval targets, partly to disrupt enemy naval command and control systems. The 223rd Brigade conducted “mobile aerial” operations with ten Bell 214 medium-lift helicopters. The helicopters conducted close air support drills at night for the first time. The Artesh Ground Forces used reconnaissance drones to identify enemy naval vessels. Artesh Commander Maj. Gen. Abdol Rahim Mousavi and Artesh Ground Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Kiomars Heydari attended the exercise.
  9. January 23. Artesh Air Defense Force Commander Brig. Gen. Alireza Sabahi Fard *visited the Southwestern Air Defense Zone. The unit is based in Omidiyeh, Khuzestan Province, and operationalized a new air defense group in Mahshahr, Khuzestan Province, following the visit.
  10. January 25. Artesh Commander Maj. Gen. Abdol Rahim Mousavi *visited the air defense group in Bandar-e Lengeh, Hormozgan Province, and its surrounding islands to evaluate its combat readiness. This unit is part of the Southeastern Air Defense Zone based in Bandar-e Abbas, Hormozgan Province.
  11. February 11–12. The IRGC Ground Forces Karbala Regional Operational Headquarters *conducted an exercise in southwestern Iran. The IRGC Ground Forces practiced artillery and aviation operations and used armored and infantry units for nighttime assault operations. The Karbala headquarters is responsible for Khuzestan, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer Ahmad, and Lorestan Provinces and oversees conventional units including the 7th Vali-ye Asr Operational Division, 1st Hazrat-e Hojjat Independent Armored Brigade, 3rd Hazrat-e Mehdi Infantry Brigade, 15th Imam Hassan Mojtaba Special Forces Brigade, 48th Fath Independent Brigade, and 57th Abol Fazl Independent Brigade. It is unclear which of these units participated in this exercise. IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami and IRGC Ground Forces Commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pak Pour attended the exercise.