KEY POINTS

  • The exercises will last four days and involve scenarios ranging from regional security to anti-privacy
  • Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been increasing since President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal
  • The drills send a strategic message that the three countries will shape the Middle East

Russia, China and Iran on Friday began conducting joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean as the U.S. tries to cobble together a coalition to protect maritime security around the Strait of Hormuz in the wake of a series of confrontations.

The wargames were dubbed Naval Security Belt and were scheduled to last four days. They include regional security and anti-terror and anti-piracy drills, Iranian Ambassador to Moscow Kazem Jalali said.

This is the first time the three nations have engaged in joint naval drills and signal a new level of cooperation among the U.S. adversaries. They follow U.S. drills that included Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in November.

 “This is a carefully calculated exercise in which all three participants are winners: Iran gets to claim it is a regional power, Russia demonstrates its role as the key actor in the Middle East, and China can show it is a global naval power,” Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute, told the Financial Times. “The strategic message is that these are the countries shaping events in the Middle East.”

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been escalating since President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear treaty. Iran allegedly shot down a U.S. surveillance drone in June and seized a British-flagged oil tanker for alleged violations of Tehran’s territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman. Iran also has threatened to make the area unsafe for oil shipments if the U.S. doesn’t stop blocking Iranian shipments. Iranian oil exports have dropped to 500,000 barrels a day from 2.8 million as a result of U.S. sanctions.

 “The most important achievement of these drills … is this message that the Islamic republic of Iran cannot be isolated,” Vice Admiral Gholamreza Tahani, a deputy naval commander, told Iranian media. “These exercises show that relations between Iran, Russia and China have reached a new high level while this trend will continue in the coming years.”

A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said the drills are focused on ensuring regional stability while China described them as “normal military-to-military cooperation.”

Tahani said the exercises would cover 17,000 square kilometers (6,564 square miles).