TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran restructured its military in an effort to improve its air defense capabilities, military commanders have said.
The move is seen as part of a broader military build up by Tehran, which is concerned about the U.S. military's presence in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan and Israeli threats to target its nuclear facilities.
Gen. Ahmad Mighani announced over the weekend that Iran's supreme leader ordered a new branch be split off from the air force to deal specifically with any threats to the country's air space. The order rearranges the regular military into four branches - the ground force, the navy, the air force and the air defense force, he said.
The commander of the new force will oversee radar, military intelligence gathering equipment and anti-aircraft missile units, Mighani said. He did not elaborate.
Some Iranian lawmakers praised the decision to establish the air defense force.
Mohammad Esmaeil Kowsari, a prominent parliament member, said the reorganization "centralizes decision-making in the air defense system and boosts the country's readiness" to deal with outside threats.
Tensions have somewhat eased between Tehran and Washington since President Barack Obama took office last month, but disputes over Iran's nuclear program remain unresolved. Israel, the United States and some allies accuse Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charges, saying its aim is to generate electricity.
Iran has taken Israeli threats of attacking its nuclear sites seriously and has said Israel would be subject to Iran's "devastating retaliation" if it attacked the Islamic Republic. Both Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her hard-line rival Benjamin Netanyahu - who are both seeking to head Israel's next government - are seen as likely to contemplate military action against Iran.
Since the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Iran has held military maneuvers annually to improve its military stamina and to test locally made equipment such as tanks, armored personnel carriers and missiles.
Iran also has inaugurated new air and naval bases on its eastern and southern borders in recent years. Most of the country's 12 air force bases are situated in the west near the border with Iraq and Turkey.
Iran's regular military is separate from the elite Revolutionary Guards, which mainly control Iran's missile program. But Mighani said all air defense units, including those belonging to the Guards, will be directed under the new air defense force.