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Iran’s Revolutionary Guard launches ground forces drill near Iraq border

Iranian news agency says aim of exercise is to test new combat and defense equipment

In this photo released Jan. 20, 2021, by the Iranian Army, troops participate in a military drill (Iranian Army via AP)
In this photo released Jan. 20, 2021, by the Iranian Army, troops participate in a military drill (Iranian Army via AP)

Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard on Thursday began a ground forces drill near the Iraqi border, state TV reported.

The report said the annual exercise, dubbed the “Great Prophet,” is ongoing in the southwest of the country and is aimed at readiness and assessment of forces. Drones and helicopters will be used in the drill, too.

The Mehr news agency said that the main focus of the drill was “testing the operational strength of new combat and defense equipment.”

In January the Guard conducted a drill and launched anti-warship ballistic missiles at a simulated target in the Indian Ocean.

In this photo released on January 15, 2021, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, missiles are launched in a drill in Iran. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces on Friday held a military exercise involving ballistic missiles and drones in the country’s central desert, state TV reported, amid heightened tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program and a US pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. (Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP)

A week before that, Iran’s navy fired cruise missiles as part of a naval drill in the Gulf of Oman, state media reported, under surveillance of what appeared to be a US nuclear submarine. That came after speedboats paraded in the Persian Gulf and a massive drone exercise across the country.

The latest drill came the day after the UN’s atomic agency said Wednesday its inspectors have confirmed that Iran has begun the production of uranium metal.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement seen by AFP that on February 8, it “verified 3.6 grams of uranium metal at Iran’s Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant in Esfahan.”

Uranium metal can be used as a component in nuclear weapons. Iran had signed up to a 15-year ban on “producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys” under the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2015 with world powers.

US President Joe Biden has said he is ready to return to the deal after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions, if Iran returns to compliance. Both sides have demanded that the other act first to return to the deal, putting them at a stalemate.

Recent known Iranian breaches have included exceeding the stockpile limit on enriched uranium, enriching beyond the permitted purity level and using more advanced centrifuges than permitted under the deal.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Monday that the country was producing almost 500 grams of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity a day, after beginning to do so earlier this year in breach of the 2015 nuclear accord.

Uranium enriched to 20% is a short technical step away from weapons-grade 90% enrichment. The foreign ministers of the European signatories to the deal — Germany, France and Britain — warned the Iranian activity “has no credible civil justification” and have called on Tehran to adhere to the accord.

A decision to begin enriching to 20% purity a decade ago nearly triggered an Israeli strike targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Tensions have increased since the assassination in late November of Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. In the aftermath of the attack, which Iran blamed on Israel, hardliners in Tehran pledged a response and Iran’s parliament passed a controversial law calling for expanded nuclear activity and for an end to IAEA inspections.

The law also demanded Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization “operate a facility of metal uranium production” within five months.

Iran says all of its breaches of the 2015 deal’s limits are reversible, but insists that the US has to come back to the deal and lift sanctions first.

Seeking to ratchet up pressure on the Biden administration, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned on Wednesday that “the existing window is closing” for the US to adopt a “new approach” toward Iran’s nuclear program.

On Tuesday, Iran’s intelligence minister warned Tehran could push for nuclear weapons if international sanctions on Tehran remain in place. The remarks by Mahmoud Alavi marked a rare occasion that a government official said Iran could move toward nuclear weapons, which Tehran has denied seeking.

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