What Iran-Russia-China Naval Exercises Mean For The US And The Middle East

Iran began a joint naval exercise with China and Russia for four days starting December 27. The drills are being held in the northern part of the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman amid U.S-imposed sanction and ongoing tension in the Middle East.

The Reason For The Naval Exercises

Iran’s military spokesman General Abolfazl Shekarchi said the first joint military drill is aimed at promoting regional security. Such an act is seen as a response to the ongoing U.S maneuver of sending troops and defense equipment to its ally Saudi Arabia.Shekarchi said the two locations have been chosen for strategic reasons: “the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman are among the world’s key trade routes and many countries commute in the [two] regions and therefore establishing security there is important and vital.”

Iran Seeks Closer Ties With China And Russia

The dispute between Iran and the U.S follows particularly from the latter’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear pact (also known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) in 2018. US President Donald Trump claimed the agreement was not enough to effectively curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Washington’s sanctions and hostility toward Iran have pushed Tehran to boost ties with China and Russia. Russia and China are still doing business with Tehran, defying sanctions. Both see Iran as a key partner in the energy and infrastructure sectors. Both Beijing and Moscow are temporarily in a strategic partnership to counter the US influence, even though it is unlikely that China and Russia will form an enduring alliance, given their competing ambitions to exert influence in the region.

Russia and China both support for Iran and oppose the US-backed sanctions on Tehran. Newly-appointed Iran ambassador to Russia Kazem Jalali, stressed the importance of the Tehran-Moscow cooperation to fight against what he called “Washington-led economic terrorism”. The US has also slapped sanctions on Moscow for allegedly poisoning former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia.

The Joint Naval Drill Sends A Strong Message To The US

Iran is trying to send a warning that the country is not isolated militarily and politically despite the prolonged US-led economic embargo. Two years ago, China and Iran held a joint military drill near the Strait of Hormuz following the US accusation that Iran had sent fast attack boats to disturb American ships there.

The four-day exercise at the end of this year comes after the attack on Saudi Aramco’s oil facility in September. Washington keeps accusing Iran of masterminding the attack despite the U.N investigation claiming that there have been no Iranian weapons used in the incident.

The timing of the joint exercise may be a bit sensitive, and some may also take it as a show of China’s support for Iran should there be any military conflicts in the near future. But it might well also simply be a regular military exchange between the nations if it is held in international waters and without targeting another country,” naval expert Lie Jie told SCMP.

Are The Naval Drills Prep For A Possible Attack From The US Or Israel?

This is the trickiest question, and it is too early to speculate on such a possibility. Also, there is no guarantee that China and Russia will defend Iran should an attack from either the US or Israel take place. However, the military drill at least has shown that Beijing and Moscow would potentially move to back up Iran if it is attacked.

Both Moscow and Beijing are cautious in responding to the current hostilities in the Middle East, including to characterize the naval exercise with Iran, due to the volatility of the circumstances in the Gulf as well as the sensitive timing of the training. Unlike Iran, both Russia and China did not immediately release an official statement regarding the naval drill.

Russia and China also maintain a good relationship with Iran’s adversaries, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Therefore, Moscow and Beijing are trying their best to balance their interests and prevent the conflict from spreading.

As Iran-focused defense analyst Farhad Rezaei explained: “First, China and Russia are also partners of Saudi Arabia and Israel as well, and they are not happy with Iran’s harassing of the kingdom and its verbal attack on Israel. Second, the Chinese are not happy with Iran’s actions in the waters and its alleged attack on Aramco, because that will cause a remarkable increase in the oil price.”