February 8, 2022 | Policy Brief

China, Russia, and Iran Hold Trilateral Naval Drill

China and Russia, America’s increasingly aligned great power adversaries, teamed up with Iran last month to hold a trilateral naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman and northern Indian Ocean, which Tehran dubbed Maritime Security Belt 2022. While the exercise itself was of limited importance militarily, the drill provides the latest evidence of growing security cooperation between China, Russia, and Iran that should sound alarm bells in Washington, Jerusalem, and key Arab capitals.

The exercise’s stated purpose was to focus on anti-air, counter-piracy, and nighttime maritime operation skills — fairly standard objectives for maritime exercises. It was clear, however, that the exercise had a larger purpose for the three governments, which are unified in their opposition to the United States.

The Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, cited “restrictions on major sea routes from some major powers, especially the US,” as one of the reasons for the exercise. That represents a transparently cynical effort to flip the script given Beijing’s illegitimate territorial claims in the South China Sea and efforts to curtail freedom of navigation there.

Similarly, Iran’s spokesperson for the exercise claimed the drills were important for maintaining security and navigation through vital waterways. This is despite the fact that Tehran and its terrorist proxies have routinely threatened or even attacked civilian and military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb Strait, Strait of Hormuz, and Persian Gulf. Iranian officials have also increasingly extolled the centrality of the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz to “global competition” in the coming decade.

Political rhetoric aside, the Chinese and Russian contributions to the exercise were relatively modest. China’s participation consisted of a guided missile destroyer and a replenishment ship, while Russia contributed a missile cruiser, a destroyer, and a replenishment ship.

Iran’s contribution, however, was more robust. Both of Iran’s naval services — the Artesh Navy and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Navy (IRGC-N) — participated in the drill. The Artesh Navy reportedly contributed 11 vessels, including two frigates, a corvette, and a fast-attack craft, while the IRGC-N added several smaller ships and helicopters.

The drill is not the first Chinese-Russian-Iranian exercise. It follows a similar exercise conducted at the end of 2019 near the Gulf of Oman amidst ongoing tensions between Tehran and Washington.

This increasing security cooperation reflects and reinforces closer relations among the three governments. In September, the Chinese- and Russian-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation agreed to grant full membership to Iran, which had previously held observer status. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein visited China last month to deepen the “comprehensive strategic partnership” agreement the two countries signed last year.

While the terms of that agreement have not been officially disclosed, a leaked copy labeled “final version” called for China and Iran to conduct combined military training, exercises, weapons development, and intelligence sharing. Tehran and Beijing are already making good on the commitment to conduct more military exercises together. The other elements may follow.

Tehran’s ultra-hardline administration is eager to strengthen relations with China in order to obtain political, economic, and military support to counter U.S.-led sanctions and to bolster Iran’s stature and military capabilities. With growing support from Beijing, Tehran will be less likely to make the sort of concessions necessary for a worthwhile nuclear agreement and may pursue even more aggressive policies in the region.

As the Biden administration finalizes its National Defense Strategy, it should not ignore the growing alignment among America’s great power and rogue state adversaries.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow and where Ryan Brobst and Zane Zovak are research analysts. They all contribute to FDD’s Iran Program and China Program. For more analysis from the authors, CMPP, and the Iran and China programs, please subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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