Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard has started large-scale war-game exercises in the Persian Gulf and the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Iranian state television says naval, air, and ground forces from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are participating in a three-day military drill called "The Great Prophet." The state TV reports say the war games seek to "display Iran's constructive and determined military power in establishing security in the strategic region."
The reports suggest the Revolutionary Guard has been bolstering naval forces it would need to try to stop oil tankers from passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
State television says the war games witnessed the unveiling of what it described as an "ultraspeed" sea vessel called "Ya Mahdi." It said the ship has radar-evading "stealth" capabilities, as well as being armed with guided missiles.
It said more than 300 speedboats -- each with the ability to fire rockets and missiles -- also are participating. Footage of the exercises today showed dozens of small speedboats firing missiles on a larger warship described as a "hypothetical enemy warship."
Revolutionary Guard commanders said that Iran must respond to any threats, "no matter who is making the threat."
The exercises come as a standoff with Western countries over Tehran's disputed nuclear program grows deeper.
The United States is pushing for a fourth round of UN sanctions against Tehran over its refusal to halt nuclear-enrichment activities as demanded by the UN Security Council. The proposed sanctions would include moves against key officials in Tehran as well as members of the Revolutionary Guard.
The Pentagon said on April 21 that U.S. military action against Iran also remains an option, even as Washington pursues diplomacy and economic sanctions as a way to stop Tehran's nuclear activities.
Iran says its efforts to enrich uranium are only for nuclear energy and medical research. But the West fears Iran is secretly trying to build a stockpile of higher-enriched uranium in order to build nuclear weapons.
Tehran has said it would respond to any attack on its nuclear facilities by targeting Israel and U.S. interests in the region, as well as closing the Strait of Hormuz. About 40 percent of the world's oil and energy supplies pass through the strait, a narrow waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened on April 21 that Iran would make Westerners "kneel down" if there is any confrontation.
"Our nuclear policy is transparent. We have said many times we will not use weapons of mass destruction," Khamenei said.
"But [Westerners] should know that in a confrontation with our nation , they can not benefit from such threats. The Iranian nation will cause them, with all their so-called powers, to kneel down."
Iran has been holding military maneuvers in the gulf and the strait annually since 2006 to show off its military capabilities.
The last four editions of the games were conducted in the summer. There has been no official explanation about why the exercises were brought forward this year.
Iran's war games routinely heighten tensions in the region, but they are now taking on added significance.
Tehran was angered by President Barack Obama's announcement earlier this month of a new U.S. nuclear policy in which he pledged the United States would not use nuclear weapons against states that do not have them.
Obama pointedly excluded Iran and North Korea from the nonuse pledge, and Iranian leaders like Khamenei have taken that as an implicit threat.
"The American president Obama implicitly threatens [Iran] with nuclear weapons," Khamenei said. "These threats are ineffective for the Iranian nation, but this is a disgrace for America's political history."
Israel, widely thought to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, has described the Iranian program as a threat to its existence. Israeli officials also say they have not ruled out military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.
with agency reports