Iran: New Military Exercises, But No New Threat

George Friedman
Posted: Feb 21, 2012 12:01 AM

The Iranian air force announced Feb. 20 that it had begun a four-day drill covering a zone of 190,000 square kilometers (73,300 square miles) in southern Iran. The exercises, dubbed "Sarollah," would be held to counter "all possible threats, especially to public, important and nuclear centers." The exercises follow the Feb. 19 start of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) own "Valfajr" ground forces exercises in the deserts of central Iran.

Unlike the previously scheduled navy exercises in the Strait of Hormuz -- which Stratfor sources say have either been canceled or at the very least delayed -- these exercises appear to be largely defensive in nature and are taking place far from the Persian Gulf's critical oil artery, a much more provocative site for military drills. Though the additional drills demonstrate Iran's concerns about military readiness, it appears the Iranians are deliberately restraining themselves in these maneuvers, which would be consistent with Tehran's efforts to reduce tensions and re-energize negotiations with the United States.

During the Sarollah exercises, Iran's air force will seek to improve the integration and cooperation of Iranian surface-to-air missile systems, anti-aircraft artillery, radar systems, and warplanes that belong to both the Iranian air force as well as the IRGC. The IRGC's Valfajr exercises involve ground maneuvers by engineer and armor units in the central Markazi desert near the city of Yazd. According to IRGC commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour, the drill is the last phase in a series of war games attended by infantry units and some Basij members (an Iranian plainclothes militia), which were intended to transfer the lessons learned during the Iran-Iraq War to younger troops.

In contrast to the Velayat 90 naval exercises held Dec. 24-Jan. 3 in the Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz and the previously planned Great Prophet VII naval maneuvers slated to take place by Feb. 19 and apparently delayed, the current exercises are being held near the center of the country and far away from the politically volatile Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, or the Iran-Afghanistan border. The ground maneuvers and heavy emphasis on air-defense also highlight the largely defensive nature of these exercises.

On Feb. 12, Brig. Gen. Pakpour announced that the IRGC planned to stage new military exercises before the end of the current Iranian calendar year on March 20. It is not clear whether he was referring to the Great Prophet VII exercises or another planned drill -- the Iranians regularly obfuscate these sorts of announcements. However, a Stratfor source said the exercises Pakpour discussed were originally supposed to last until the beginning of March but will now be carried out for only two days. The source explained that these changes are intended to signal a major de-escalation in Iranian posturing. Considering that on Jan. 15, the United States also postponed military exercises with Israel originally scheduled for April, the Iranian downgrade of these exercises could represent a reciprocal gesture and one consistent with the overall Iranian effort toward reducing tensions with Washington in order to facilitate backchannel negotiations.

This article reprinted by permission of Stratfor.