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Amid Iran tensions, US, Belgium, France and Japan hold Mideast naval exercise

Ships from the four countries, along with aircraft, to conduct drills in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman

The deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island in the Arabian Sea, March 19, 2021. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ethan Jaymes Morrow, via AP)
The deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island in the Arabian Sea, March 19, 2021. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ethan Jaymes Morrow, via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The US Navy said Sunday it will hold a major naval exercise alongside Belgium, France and Japan in the Mideast amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear program in the region.

The Group Arabian Sea Warfare Exercise will see ships from the four countries conduct drills in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. Ships involved include the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, as well as the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island.

The Belgian frigate HNLMS Leopold I and the Japanese destroyer JS Ariake also will take part, as well as aircraft from the four nations.

There was no immediate reaction from Iran to the naval drill.

The drill comes as Iran has abandoned limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in the wake of then-US president Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from the accord, which he said did not far enough to prevent Iran’s nuclear program from producing a weapon or address the country’s ballistic missile developments.

The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program. After pulling the US out, Trump reinstated US sanctions, aggressively using the measures to punish the Islamic Republic.

Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, December 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Iran has responded by repeatedly taking public steps to violate the agreement and turn up the heat on the US, including by enriching uranium past the accord’s limits and barring UN inspections of its nuclear facilities. On Friday Iran said it would conduct initial testing of a redesigned nuclear reactor that was closed under the terms of the JCPOA.

The same day, the US unveiled charges against 10 Iranians for allegedly evading American sanctions.

The announcement of the Iranian reactor tests came a day after French President Emmanuel Macron, standing alongside Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, urged Iran to stop aggravating the already grave crisis over its nuclear program.

US President Joe Biden has expressed a desire to return to the deal if Iran honors the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. However, tensions remain high after militias in Iraq — likely backed by Iran — continue to target American interests.

Biden last month launched an airstrike just over the border into Syria in retaliation, joining every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have already begun voicing opposition to the Biden administration’s desire to rejoin the deal, putting Jerusalem and Washington at odds on the issue. Some leading Israeli officials in recent months have warned of military action to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

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