Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has staged a mock attack on a fake aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz, in a drill which saw two US bases briefly put on missile alert.
The Great Prophet 14 exercise saw Guard commandos abseil down onto the vessel from a helicopter, and anti-aircraft guns open fire on a target drone near the port city of Bandar Abbas.
Iranian state television footage also showed a variety of missiles being fired from fast boats, trucks, mobile launchers and a helicopter, some targeting the fake carrier.
A commander said the Revolutionary Guard, a force answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also planned to fire “long-range ballistic missiles” during the drill, which will continue throughout Wednesday.
Ballistic missile fire detected from the drill resulted in American troops being put on alert at Al-Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Al-Udeid Air Base, the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, in Qatar.
Troops sought cover during that time.
“The incident lasted for a matter of minutes and an all clear was declared after the threat … had passed,” said US Army Major Beth Riordan.
Both bases are hundreds of kilometres away from where Iran positioned the replica aircraft carrier.
Al-Dhafra is also temporarily home to five French-built Rafale fighter jets on their way to India for that country’s air force.
While Iran’s naval forces are dwarfed by the US Navy, its commanders practise swarm tactics aimed at overwhelming US carriers.
The replica used in the drill resembled the Nimitz-class carriers that the US Navy routinely sails into the Persian Gulf from the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the waterway through which 20 per cent of the world’s oil trade passes.
The exercise had been expected, as satellite photos released on Monday showed the fake carrier being moved into place by a tugboat.
A black-and-white satellite photo taken on Tuesday by Colorado-based firm Maxar Technologies showed damage to the replica vessel’s bow and several of its fake jet fighters.
“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,” Iranian general Hossein Salami said.
“What was shown today at this exercise at the level of aerospace and naval forces was all offensive.”
State TV footage also showed 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 US accusations last year that Iran used limpet mines to attack oil tankers.
Iran has repeatedly denied the claims, though footage captured by the American military at the time showed Guard members removing an unexploded mine from one vessel.
The USS Nimitz carrier entered Middle Eastern waters late last week from the Indian Ocean and is 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.
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 US Navy has stressed the strait is an international waterway crucial to global shipping and energy supplies.
Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, described the Iranian exercise as “attempting to intimidate and coerce”.
“While we are always watchful of this type of irresponsible and reckless behaviour 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 said.
Tensions have persisted between the two countries over the past year.
A series of escalating incidents last year led to an American drone strike killing a top Iranian general in Baghdad.
Tehran responded to that strike by firing ballistic missiles at US and allied bases in Iraq.
The US has also been arguing to extend an UN weapons embargo on Tehran that is due to expire in October, and a recent incident over Syria involving an American jet fighter approaching an Iranian passenger plane did not calm fears in the region.