As Iran held a major, unprecedented naval drill with Russia and China in the northern part of the Indian Ocean on Saturday, a top Iranian navy official said the three countries sought to establish “full security of shipping lines” in the region.
Iranian flotilla chief, Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani, added that the nations were cooperating to counter “common maritime threats,” according to Tehran’s Fars news agency.
Iranian state TV reported Friday that the four-day exercise, launched from the southeastern port city of Chahbahar in the Gulf of Oman and near the border with Pakistan, is aimed at boosting security of the region’s waterways.
The joint exercise, the first of its kind, comes at a time of heightened tensions since the United States withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in May last year, and with the Islamic Republic gradually breaching elements of the agreement.
Tehran has been seeking to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid unprecedented economic sanctions from Washington. Visits to Iran by Russian and Chinese naval representatives have also increased in recent years.
“The common nature of maritime threats and political developments between the governments for taking coordinated measures have led to closer cooperation between the naval forces of these three countries,” Tahani said.
On Twitter, meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote that “Our joint military drills in Oman Sea and the Indian Ocean with our Russian and Chinese partners make clear our broader commitment to secure vital waterways.
“Iran has long stated its readiness to work with our neighbors to secure the Persian Gulf,” Zarif added.
Tahani also said the drill shows that Iran is not isolated. The joint exercise was also seen as a response to recent US maneuvers with its regional ally Saudi Arabia, in which China participated.
Tahani added that the drill included rescuing ships on fire or vessels under attack by pirates and shooting exercises, with both Iran’s navy and its Revolutionary Guards participating.
Iranian state television called the three countries “the new triangle of power in the sea.”
“The aim of this drill is to bolster security of international maritime commerce, combating piracy and terrorism and sharing information… and experience,” the flotilla commander said.
“Us hosting these powers shows that our relations have reached a meaningful point and may have an international impact,” he added.
The United States reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran after quitting the nuclear deal last year, prompting Tehran to hit back with countermeasures by dropping nuclear commitments.
Remaining parties to the badly weakened agreement include Britain, France and Germany as well as China and Russia.
Iran last week said it had begun testing its latest, much faster, model of centrifuges in a further signal the international deal limiting its nuclear program was unraveling. Iran also began new operations on Monday at a heavy water nuclear reactor.
In June, US President Donald Trump authorized a military strike after Iran shot down a US drone, only to call off the retaliation at the last moment.
The crisis deepened with September 14 attacks on Saudi energy giant Aramco’s Abqaiq processing plant and Khurais oilfield, which halved the kingdom’s crude output.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack but Washington accused Tehran, a charge Iran has strongly denied.
Washington responded with a military build-up in the Gulf and launched an operation with its allies to protect navigation in Gulf waters.
Set to last until December 30, the military exercises aim to “deepen exchange and cooperation between the navies of the three countries,” Chinese defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian told reporters last week.
The spokesman said the Chinese navy would deploy its Xining guided missile destroyer — nicknamed the “carrier killer” for its array of anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles — in the drill. He did not give details on how many personnel or ships would take part overall.
China’s foreign minister said the exercises were part of “normal military cooperation” between the three countries.
Israel’s Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Wednesday lamented that Israel was alone in the fight against Iran and its proxies in the Middle East, as the Islamic Republic grows increasingly aggressive in the region. “It would be better if we weren’t the only ones responding to them [militarily],” Kohavi said, in an apparent criticism of the United States and Persian Gulf countries, who also see Iran as a major foe.
The military chief, in his first major speech, had said the Israel Defense Forces was operating throughout the region — openly, covertly and clandestinely — in order to thwart the plans of Iran and its proxies, “even at the risk of war.”