Iran’s navy on Friday kicked off an unprecedented joint naval drill with Russia and China in the northern part of the Indian Ocean, Iranian state TV reported.
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 report quoted Iran’s navy chief Adm. Hossein Khanzadi as saying.
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 Iran 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 Iranian TV report also said the drill shows that Iran is not isolated. The drill is also seen as a response to recent US maneuvers with its regional ally Saudi Arabia, in which China also participated.
“The message of this exercise is peace, friendship and lasting security through cooperation and unity … and its effect will be to show that Iran cannot be isolated,” Iranian flotilla chief, Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani, said on state television.
Tahani added that the drills included rescuing ships on fire or vessels under attack by pirates and shooting exercises, with both Iran’s navy and its Revolutionary Guards participating.
State television showed what it said was a Russian warship arriving at Chabahar port in southern Iran and said the Chinese will join shortly, calling 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. “Today, our new IR-6 centrifuges are working and the newer IR-9’s are being tested,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said during a visit to Malaysia.
According to Iranian officials, an IR-6 centrifuge can produce enriched uranium 10 times faster than the country’s first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. The IR-9, for its part, works five times faster than the IR-6 and 50 times faster than the IR-1, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, has said.
A centrifuge enriches uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas, with more advanced centrifuges further cutting into the one year that experts estimate Tehran would need to have enough material for building a nuclear weapon — if it chose to pursue one.
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 has responded with a military build-up in the Gulf and has 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.
Wu 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 drills.
But 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 is 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, 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.”