The Geopolitical Implications of the Trilateral Naval Drill in the Gulf

Hadi Khodabandeh Loui Coordinator, Security Studies

Iran, Russia and China started a joint military exercise in the Gulf of Oman and the northern area of the Indian Ocean on 27 December, which is scheduled to last for 4 days.

Iran, Russia and China started a joint military exercise in the Gulf of Oman and the northern area of the Indian Ocean on 27 December, which is scheduled to last for 4 days. The timing of the Maritime Security Belt Exercise can be subjected to different readings, one of which is it is a response to the US; in that it takes place at the height of the U.S. policy of maximum pressure on Iran, the "customs wars" which are used as a weapon against China, and escalating missile tensions with Russia.

The US has proposed to form a military coalition to safeguard Gulf waters after several attacks took place against international merchant ships, including Saudi, Japanese and Danish oil tankers. Although the US published some documents concerning the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps role in the sabotage attacks, Tehran rejects these accusations. However, both Washington and Riyadh attribute the attack on the Saudi oil facilities that occurred last September to the highest echelon of political and military elites in Tehran.

Acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said on Friday that Tehran could carry out "provocative actions" in the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere in the Middle East and that "The waters around Iran have become the centre of international tensions," Modly told Reuters. Washington's warning was concurrent with the Russian and Chinese warships’ docking at Iranian strategic port of Chabahar to launch the trilateral exercise.

Although the U.S. has expressed concern over the naval exercise, the Russian Navy’s Baltic fleet has sent three warships- a frigate, an oil tanker and a rescue tugboat- to the Gulf of Oman. China, which had traditionally refrained from meddling in the region, has sent a guided missile destroyer to the naval exercise and now seems to have decided to enter the Gulf chess game. In addition, ignoring Washington's designation of the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a "terrorist organisation", Moscow and Beijing opened space to the Guard’s Navy (NEDSA) to make an appearance in a trilateral exercise.

The joint naval exercise is aimed at deepening cooperation between the three countries' navies, Chinese Defence Minister Wu Qian said, adding that the exercise will be carried out in accordance with international law and practices. Wu Qian told Reuters that “it is not necessarily connected with the regional situation.”

Tehran’s Message to the World: “Iran Cannot Be Isolated”

While Russian and Chinese statements on the Maritime Security Belt drill were mundane, talking assertively, Iran described the exercise as a "message to the world". Iranian Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani told state television that the manoeuvre is intended to show that “Iran cannot be isolated."

In addition, Iran’s state propaganda apparatus is trying to create the image of "tremendous success," giving extensive coverage of the exercise, which has been largely ignored in the Russian and Chinese media. Almost all state-sponsored media, including Iran's international propaganda channel Press TV, have overplayed assertions such as “the great powers need Iran,” “the military capacity of the NEDSA is equivalent to the Russians and Chinese naval forces,” “Tehran has become a naval power,” and “we are witnessing a civilizational rise” in their news coverage. The commander of the Iranian navy, who took part in the exercise, said: "The fact that we are hosting these forces shows that our relations have reached an important point and that this could have an international impact."

The Iranian News Channel, which broadcasted footage of a Russian warship arriving at the strategic military region on Iran's south-eastern coast, described the three countries as "the golden triangle of power at sea."

Imagining a New Security Architecture in the Gulf and "Hormuz Peace Initiative"

Despite the unclear future of the U.S. Middle East policy under the Trump administration, Washington is increasing its military involvement in the Gulf. Additionally, the US has also announced its attempt to establish a multilateral International Maritime Security Consortium (INMC) following the sabotage attacks in the Gulf of Oman and called on states to join this coalition. The INMC initiative has so far received the support of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK, Australia and Bahrain. This partnership carried out a naval mission in November called Operation Sentinel which was intended to accompany the passing ships across the Strait of Hormuz.

Countering the INMC initiative, Tehran has raised the need for a new security architecture that Foreign Minister Zarif has long expressed on various regional and international platforms. In his speech at the 74th General Assembly of the United Nations, Iran's President Rouhani advertised Tehran’s vision, noting that the new security concept is aimed raising the level of peace, stability and prosperity and developing mutual understanding and friendly relations between the littoral states in the Gulf.

Tehran wants to win the support of the international community, underlining that its proposed new security architecture is in line with international law. Tehran stated that the Strait of Hormuz, which is included in the territorial waters of Iran and Oman, is not in the status of "international waters" and is only open to international maritime transport for "innocent passage. “From this foundation, Tehran claims that the United States, by establishing maritime domination in the Gulf, is acting contrary to the innocent passage and consequently is violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In this context, Tehran has attempted to substantiate its criticism of the existing Gulf security architecture. The Islamic Republic has pursued an assertive diplomatic effort; on the one hand, it continues to have close contacts with Oman and on the other hand, with the support of global actors such as Russia and China, it is trying to establish the HOPE coalition, which is an acronym for the Hormuz Peace Endeavor.

With the realization of the Maritime Security Belt, Tehran has been partially successful in this effort. Indeed, Tehran's strongest ally, Moscow, has expressed a positive view of Iran's plan for the security of the Gulf. Speaking on the issue last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin's Special Representative for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov said Iran's HOPE initiative "complies with Russia’s plan for the collective security of the region on many issues."

Conclusion

Though the Maritime Security Belt naval drill may not have been an incredibly important maritime security manoeuvre in the record of naval exercises; by Iran, Russia and China gathering together in the Gulf of Oman, they sent a message to the international community, the United States in particular. With this meticulously calculated move, Russians and Chinese are keen to display their backing for Tehran, which has shared the same fate as Moscow and Beijing in being subjected to the American weaponizations of its sanction power. However, this move does not mean that the two Eurasian giants will directly back Iran in the face of a potential US military offensive.

Especially at a time when Tehran is experiencing unprecedented nationwide unrest, which has put the regime under international condemnation for its brutal crackdown, the participation of two permanent members of the UN Security Council in the drill help Iran to repair its legitimacy deficit.

In the final analysis, Tehran wants to show that even if it is economically isolated, it will not be isolated politically and militarily. Although this military exercise is not of “vital significance” for Russia and China, it could offer a lifeline to the Ayatollah regime, which is shaken by the unprecedented anti-regime protests and the US maximum pressure campaign.

The Maritime Security Belt, Iran, Russia, China, Gulf Security

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