Iran fires missile at mock aircraft carrier amid US tensions

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard fired a missile from a helicopter targeting a replica aircraft carrier in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, state television reported on Tuesday, an exercise aimed at threatening the U.S. amid tensions between Tehran and Washington.

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 yearslong 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 exercise had been expected as satellite photos released Monday showed the fake carrier being moved into place by a tugboat.

"Our policies to protect the vital interests of the dear nation of Iran are defensive, in the sense that we will not invade any country from the beginning, but we are completely aggressive in tactics and operations," Gen. Hossein Salami, the head of the Guard, was quoted as saying. "What was shown today at this exercise at the level of aerospace and naval forces was all offensive."

State TV footage also showed Guard scuba forces underwater, followed by a cutaway to a blast hole just above the waterline on the replica carrier.

That appeared to be a not-so-subtle reminder of U.S. accusations last year that Iran planted limpet mines on passing oil tankers near the strait, which exploded on the vessels in the same area. Iran has repeatedly denied the actions, though footage captured by the American military showed Guard members remove an unexploded mine from one vessel.

The replica used in the drill 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.

To Iran, which shares the strait with Oman, the American naval presence is akin to Iranian forces sailing into the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Florida. But the U.S. Navy stresses the strait is an international waterway crucial to global shipping and energy supplies. Even as America now relies less on Mideast oil, a major disruption in the region could see prices rapidly rise.

Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet that patrols the Mideast, said officials were aware of the Iranian exercise involving "a vessel similar to a motionless aircraft carrier."

"The U.S. Navy conducts defensive exercises with our partners promoting maritime security in support of freedom of navigation whereas Iran conducts offensive exercises, attempting to intimidate and coerce," Rebarich told The Associated Press.

"While we are always watchful of this type of irresponsible and reckless behavior by Iran in the vicinity of busy international waterways, this exercise has not disrupted coalition operations in the area nor had any impacts to the free flow of commerce in the Strait of Hormuz and surrounding waters," she added.

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press journalist Mohammad Nasiri in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.