TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran began annual air force exercises in the central part of the country on Sunday, state media reported, as the U.S. sent more warplanes to the region to prevent the Islamic Republic from intercepting merchant ships in the Persian Gulf.
The official IRNA news agency reported that 11 Iranian Air Force bases participated in the exercise, called Fadaian Velyat-11, or Supreme Leader’s Faithful-11. He also stated that the strategic coastal air base of Hormuz, located in the southern port of Bandar Abbas, is working on exercises.
The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of crude oil passes.
The report said more than 90 fighter jets, bombers and drones will participate in the training.
Air Force Chief General Hamid Vahedi said the message of the training is friendship, peace and security in the region. “Sustainable security, improving and enhancing regional relations, peaceful coexistence and defense of air borders are the agendas,” he said.
Iran regularly conducts such drills and says they are designed to assess the force’s combat readiness and demonstrate the country’s military capabilities.
The US announced last week that it would send more fighter jets and a warship to the coast of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman to bolster security in response to Iran’s attempts to seize commercial shipping. The Pentagon said the destroyer USS Thomas Hudner and several F-35 fighter jets were en route to the site. Hudner was in the Red Sea.
The US action comes after Iran opened fire on two oil tankers, the Marshall Islands-flagged TRF Moss and the Bahamian-flagged Richmond Voyager, near its coast last week in early July. In both cases, the US Navy was left behind when the Iranian Navy’s USS McFaul guided-missile destroyer arrived at the scene.
The U.S. Navy says Iran has seized at least five merchant ships and harassed more than a dozen others over the past two years. Many of the conflicts took place in and around the coast of Hormuz.
The West accuses Iran of using seized merchant ships as bargaining chips. Iran has denied the allegations, saying it seized the ships after colliding with local vessels and polluting its waterways.
Former US President Donald Trump’s administration Tensions have been rising since 2015 when it unilaterally scrapped a nuclear deal with world powers and reinstated crippling sanctions. Iran has responded by ramping up its nuclear activities – which it says are entirely peaceful – and Russia has provided drones for its war on Ukraine.