Iran and Russia begin joint naval drill in Indian Ocean

Exercise is 2nd of its kind since 2019, when the 2 countries were joined by China; comes among other moves perceived as pressure on US

In this photo released Feb. 16, 2021, by the Iranian army, a Russian warship enters Iranian waters for a joint naval exercise with the Iranian navy and Iran's Revolutionary Guard navy (Iranian Army via AP)
In this photo released Feb. 16, 2021, by the Iranian army, a Russian warship enters Iranian waters for a joint naval exercise with the Iranian navy and Iran's Revolutionary Guard navy (Iranian Army via AP)

The Iranian and Russian militaries have kicked off a joint naval drill in the Indian Ocean aimed at boosting security of maritime trade in the region, Iran’s state TV reported on Tuesday.

The TV said units from Iran’s Navy and the powerful Revolutionary Guard’s navy will take part in the exercise dubbed “Iran-Russia Maritime Security Belt 2021” in the northern part of Indian Ocean, spanning a stretch of about 17,000 kilometers (10,600 miles).

According to Iranian Adm. Gholamreza Tahani, the drill spokesman, a Russian destroyer, logistics ship and a helicopter were to participate in the drill. This is the second such joint Russia-Iran exercise since 2019, when the two nations plus China held a four-day exercise.

Tehran has been seeking to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid regional tensions with the United States. Visits to Iran by Russian and Chinese naval representatives have also increased in recent years.

In this photo released Feb. 16, 2021, by the Iranian army, a Russian commander, stands during a welcoming ceremony for a joint naval exercise with the Iranian navy and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard navy (Iranian Army via AP)

In the last few months, Iran has stepped up military drills as the country tries to pressure US President Joe Biden over the JCPOA nuclear accord, which he has said America could reenter.

Last Thursday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard conducted a ground forces drill near the border with Iraq in which drones, helicopters and military tanks were used.

In January the Guard conducted a drill and launched anti-warship ballistic missiles at a simulated target in the Indian Ocean.

In this photo released on January 15, 2021, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, missiles are launched in a drill in Iran. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces on Friday held a military exercise involving ballistic missiles and drones in the country’s central desert, state TV reported, amid heightened tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program and a US pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. (Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP)

A week before that, Iran’s navy fired cruise missiles as part of a naval drill in the Gulf of Oman, state media reported, under surveillance of what appeared to be a US nuclear submarine. That came after speedboats paraded in the Persian Gulf and a massive drone exercise across the country.

The latest drill came the day after Iran reiterated its warning that it would halt certain nuclear inspections if other parties to the 2015 deal limiting the country’s atomic program “fail to meet their obligations” by February 21.

Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency said the UN watchdog was informed of the move.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Nations nuclear inspectors found traces of radioactive material at Iranian nuclear sites that could indicate work on nuclear weapons.

In this August 20, 2010, photo, an Iranian security guard walks past a gate of the Bushehr nuclear power plant as its reactor building is seen in background, just outside the city of Bushehr 750 miles (1,245 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Last month, Tehran announced it was beginning to enrich uranium up to 20 percent — far beyond the 3.5% permitted under the nuclear deal, and a relatively small technical step away from the 90% needed for a nuclear weapon. The UN’s atomic agency confirmed this month that Iran has produced a small amount of uranium metal, a material that technically has civilian uses, but is seen as another likely step toward a nuclear bomb.

The known breaches came as the landmark 2015 deal between Iran and world powers, limiting Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief, is hanging by a thread.

Former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, with Iran a year later gradually suspending its compliance with most key nuclear commitments in response.

The Biden administration has expressed willingness to return to the deal, but insisted that Iran first resume full compliance, while Tehran has called for the immediate lifting of sanctions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a leading critic of the agreement, which was reached when Biden was vice president, and warned against reengaging with Tehran on the accord.

The UN’s atomic agency said last week its inspectors have confirmed that Iran has begun the production of uranium metal.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement that on February 8, it “verified 3.6 grams of uranium metal at Iran’s Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant in Esfahan.”

Uranium metal can be used as a component in nuclear weapons. Iran had signed up to a 15-year ban on “producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys” under the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2015 with world powers.

Recent known Iranian breaches have included exceeding the stockpile limit on enriched uranium, enriching beyond the permitted purity level and using more advanced centrifuges than permitted under the deal.

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