This past year witnessed the United States nearly go to war with Iran in the Persian Gulf, after a summer of 'tanker wars' and the September Saudi Aramco attack, but now it appears the new year will witness a superpowers balancing act of sorts play out in the region.
FT reports of an unprecedented development in the gulf region:
Russia, China and Iran launched their first joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman on Friday in a direct challenge to US influence in the Middle East. The move reflects growing co-operation between the US’s two main rivals and the Islamic republic, which is under sanctions imposed by Washington.
Crucially, the start of the four day exercises come as the United States has struggled to attract key European allies to join its 'maritime naval mission' in the gulf to thwart Iran. Instead, Europe has initiated its own mission which leaders have emphasized has nothing to do with the US project.
Predictably, the US mission counts as key regional allies Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Iran has long stated only its forces and its partners can 'secure' vital oil waterways like the Strait of Hormuz.
The unprecedented Iran-China-Russia drills also come after in the past months the US has sanctioned major Chinese shipping companies over alleged sanctions-busting activities related to imports of Iranian oil.
But sensing that its fortunes and past year of extreme isolation (and with little substantial help from Europe) have changed, Iranian military officials are now boasting in the face of Washington threats.
Iran has long stated its readiness to work w/our neighbors to secure Persian Gulf. #HOPE-Hormuz Peace Endeavour-is on table right now— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) December 27, 2019
Our joint military drills in Oman Sea/Indian Ocean w/ our Russian & Chinese partners make clear our broader commitment to secure vital waterways.
“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, was quoted as saying.
“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,” the Iranian naval commander added.
The US meanwhile, warned in a statement that Iran should "think twice" about following through with the joint exercises, a message already clearly ignored.
In a statement to FT, the State Department said Friday's military exercises “should concern all nations with an interest in safeguarding freedom of navigation in the region.”
Unmoved, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif underscored, "Our joint military drills in Oman Sea/Indian Ocean with our Russian & Chinese partners make clear our broader commitment to secure vital waterways," in a statement posted to Twitter.
#MarineSecurityBelt#Iran— Iran Military (@Iran_Military) December 26, 2019
Sahand frigate, Alvand frigate,Tonb landing craft, Konarak tender, Neyzeh attack craft, Martyr Nazeri vessel, a Tondar-class attack craft, & a tug boat.#Russia
Yaroslav Mudry frigate,Viktor Konetsky tug boat, & Yelyna tanker.#China
Xining destroyer pic.twitter.com/cCGundlzBu
And Second Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani described that among the drills' strategic objectives are "improving the security of international maritime trade, countering maritime piracy and terrorism, exchanging information regarding rescue operations and operational and tactical experience."
Specifically the joint exercises have been dubbed as as the "Marine Security Belt" and will be conducted across an area of 17,000 square kilometers and is set to demonstrate "various tactical exercises".