China-Russia-Iran joint naval drills reflect growing ties

Joint naval exercises involving Russia, China and Iran scheduled to begin Friday in the northern Indian Ocean have as much to do with global geopolitics as they do with warship capabilities and the fight against local sea pirates. In the face of growing pressure from the United States, the maneuvers are a particularly strong signal that some of America’s leading adversaries are moving closer together as relations with the U.S. deteriorate.

The exercises coincide with the visit this week by hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Moscow and proposals for a 20-year economic and security pact between the two countries. China agreed to its own 25-year “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Tehran in March even though the U.S. is still enforcing major economic and financial sanctions on Iran and its trading partners over its nuclear programs. 

“The close relations between Tehran and Moscow are on track towards becoming strategic ties,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said, according to Iran’s Tasnim news agency. Iranian officials, who say more joint exercises are planned, regularly tout their growing ties with Beijing and Moscow even as negotiations with Washington over the tattered 2015 Iran nuclear deal appear stalemated.

The joint naval maneuvers are the most ambitious such exercises so far involving Chinese, Russian and Iranian vessels, and the first since Iran was formally invited to join the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) security pact in September. Tehran, whose new leaders have embraced a “look to the East” strategy, had been trying to join the regional defense grouping for 15 years.

The guided-missile cruiser Varyag, the anti-submarine ship Admiral Tributs and seagoing fuel tanker Boris Butoma will be participating in the exercise. They are from Russia’s Pacific feet, the Russian Defense Ministry said. China and Iran haven’t identified which of their ships will take part in the seaborne maneuvers.

Iranian marine and airborne units and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps navy will take part in the drills, dubbed “Naval Security Belt Combined War Game 2022,” according to Tasnim. They will cover an area of about 10,500 square miles and will be the third such set of naval drills involving Iran, Russia and China since 2019, said Iranian navy Adm. Mostafa Tajeddini.

The participants will practice tactical maneuvering at sea, day and night weapons training, and saving vessels that pirates have hijacked, Iranian officials said.

“The purpose of holding the war game is to strengthen security and its fundamentals in the region, promote multilateral cooperation among the three countries, display the three countries’ goodwill and capability to jointly support world peace and maritime security, and create a maritime security with a common future,” the Iranian admiral told Tasnim.

The U.S. is clashing at various levels with all three participants. The Pentagon considers China as its primary economic and military “pacing challenge” in the future, Russia has massed thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine in defiance of NATO warnings, and Iran is believed to be behind a number of drone attacks that have targeted U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

Tactics and strategy

Retired Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, a former commander of NATO, said he wasn’t particularly concerned about the tactical significance of the joint maneuvers.

“While they’re ‘working’ together, it’s still pretty rudimentary. They’re together, but that’s about it,” he said last week during a conference hosted by the Institute for Corean-American Studies. (ICAS) “In the warfare we have today, it’s got to go a great deal farther to be a threat.”

The general acknowledged that he was more concerned about the strategic-level decisions that have brought the two countries together in league against the U.S., an alliance American strategists worked hard to block during the Cold War. 

“We made a decision about 10 years ago that we would have a one-theater capability in terms of conflict — to be able to conduct warfare in one theater and hold in the next,” he said. “I personally think that was not a good idea at the time.”

He said the U.S. is downsizing its forces and relying on technology to make up the difference. That is a losing proposition, he said.

“High-intensity warfare is an entirely different ballgame. Capacity makes a huge difference,” Gen. Scaparrotti said. “We have global expectations in our military, and yet we have not manned them on a global level.”

Whether or not the three navies taking part in the exercises are tactically proficient, it should be a wake-up call to Washington that America’s near-peer competitors and a well-armed regional power like Iran are moving closer to one another, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“It builds off political and economic ties that already exist, and in the case of China, are set to grow. It’s a very important political message about what the rest of this decade is going to look like from America’s major state adversaries,” he said. 

Iran is looking to improve its war-fighting capabilities, and Beijing and Moscow have clear economic interests in selling them military equipment, Mr. Ben Taleblu said.

“In places that the Iranians have quantity, they’re looking to improve the quality,” he said.

The one element that joins all three countries involved in the naval exercises is their antipathy toward the United States, Mr. Ben Taleblu said.

“The policy item No.1 that is shared is getting the U.S. out of their respective regions,” he said.

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