Flexing Muscles in the Middle East? Russia, China, and Iran’s Naval Drills

As Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow takes place this week, the joint naval drills between Russia, China and Iran in the Gulf of Oman are being concluded. The combined naval exercise between the three nations, named “Maritime Security Belt 2023”, took place between 15-19 March. Although joint military drills between nations is a normal practice, yet the joint drills specifically between Russia, China, and Iran at this time and at such location can be viewed with a growing concern due to the potential threats it may pose to the region’s security and stability. The Gulf of Oman is a strategic waterway that forms the entrance to the Arabian Gulf and is also connected to the Arabian Sea through the Strait of Hormuz, which is a narrow passage between Oman and Iran. Thus, it is one of the busiest and strategic shipping routes for the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait as they are heavily reliant on this route for oil exports and other goods.

While the naval drill itself might not pose any direct military threat to GCC countries, it can certainly raise concerns about the growing military power of Iran in the region. In this regard, Iran is regarded as a significant threat to the GCC, primarily because of its military capabilities, support of terrorist groups, and its nuclear ambitions. The GCC countries have been uneasy about Iran’s actions in the region since the 1979 revolution, and this joint drill only increases the worries. Furthermore, the participation of China and Russia in the drills is also significant given that China has been looking to expand its influence in the Middle East, particularly in GCC countries, by pursuing various trade and investment agreements. Additionally, Russia has been seeking to build stronger ties with Iran and has been supporting Tehran in its efforts to resist US sanctions as well as mutually further enhancing military cooperation over the past few years. Accordingly, the conduction of the drill may have various geopolitical implications.

Firstly, the joint drills indicate the growing closeness between Russia, China, and Iran. These exercises are a sign of deepening ties between the three nations, which have expressed their willingness to forge closer cooperation in various fields. This closer cooperation could have significant consequences on the global balance of power and the regional power dynamic. The three nations’ joint statement after the drill emphasized that the exercise aimed to develop their collective capabilities and provide the necessary framework for a more enhanced cooperation. Therefore, it can be viewed that the drills serve as a testament to the growing military cooperation between Russia, China, and Iran as well as the shared interests in the region including the expansion of their influence. That said, joint drills are one way in which they can demonstrate their readiness to defend their interests against any foreign actors.

Secondly, the drills could indicate an attempt by the three nations to counterbalance the United States and its regional Arab allies’ dominant role in the Arabian Gulf. The US has a significant and strong presence in the region for the past five decades, and its policies often lead to conflicts with Iran due to the latter’s aggressive ambitions against the GCC. In this context, a closer relationship between Iran, Russia, and China could provide a serious challenge to the US and its allies’ power and influence in the region.

Thirdly, the conducted drills were larger and more extensive than those held in previous years. For example, reports suggest that the Chinese participation in these exercises is the largest they have ever conducted in the region. This increased scale may indicate that the drills are more than just routine military exercises and may be part of a concerted effort by these nations to flex their military muscle and collective aim to assert their dominance in the region. Therefore, the exercises can be viewed as a clear demonstration of the ability of these countries to work together strategically and tactically, in potentially undermining US efforts in an attempt to maintain a dominant presence in the region.

Fourthly, it can be viewed that these joint exercises have the potential to strengthen Iran’s military capabilities. Iran, which has faced extensive sanctions, has been seeking to improve its military capabilities through cooperation with other countries, mainly Russia and China. Furthermore, considering the nuclear deal negotiations and the lifting of some sanctions, the drills may be seen as an attempt by Iran to assert its power and influence in the region. In addition, for Iran to have joint drills with Russia and China, can be considered a sign that in times of real conflict, any of these nations may retaliate for one another.

Policy Recommendation and Countering the Threat

The first step in countering the current threats posed by the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian drills is to strengthen the military cooperation between the United States and the GCC countries. The US has long-standing defense engagements with the GCC countries, which can be leveraged to increase the number of military drills and joint exercises between the US and regional Arab allies. Mutual training and cooperation could bolster the stability, security, and safety situations of the Middle East in the face of emerging threats by adversaries. Furthermore, working on developing and the deployment of a joint naval task force between the US and regional Arab allies can act as deterrent in response to the activities of Iranian, Russian, and Chinese forces in the region. The deployment of more warships, submarines, and naval aviation assets will provide the necessary deterrence to any potential aggression by Iran, Russia, or China.

The second step is intelligence gathering and sharing among allies, which is the key to combating the multidimensional security threats. Both the US and GCC countries may need to cooperate more on intelligence sharing and establishing a joint task force to address any malicious activities in the region. Sharing intelligence can play a crucial role in countering the emerging threats posed by the increasing ambitions of Iran, China, and Russia in the Middle East.

The third step to counter these challenges, the GCC needs to adopt a multifaceted approach that focuses on diplomacy, military cooperation, and economic measures. In this regard, the GCC needs to engage in sustained diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the tensions in the region. This might require a dialogue with Iran, as well as robust engagement with Russia and China to understand their intentions and motivations in the region and how this may or may not affect the stability in the region. Especially with the increasing coordination between Russia, China, and Iran.

The Fourth and most essential step is regional partnership. The US and GCC countries must build stronger partnerships and alliances with other Middle Eastern countries. It is necessary to unite most of the Middle Eastern countries to create a powerful coalition, to counter the Iranian and Russian doubting ambitions in the region along with the increasing Chinese influence.

Finally, as the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian drills that took place may have implications beyond the military sphere, the increased militarization and coordination between the three nations could possibly harm the strategic and economic interests of the US and GCC countries. The US, being a dominant military power in the region, is always perceived as a potential threat by Russia, China and Iran, and the conducted drills can be viewed as warning for confrontation. Accordingly, it is important to stress and argue for the increasing importance and the need for the US to enhance the GCC’s defense capabilities with the supply and training on advanced military hardware which would effectively allow the latter in deterring and confronting regional threats posed by Iran as they arise. In doing so, the US not only maintains its strong and supporting foothold in the region, but also prevents other global powers in fulfilling any vacuum arising from unalignment of strategic interests between the US and regional Arab allies.

[Photo by YJC / Mousa Taghavi Namin, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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