Soleimani killing eclipses Iran’s war games with Russia, China
In late December, Iran conducted war games and naval exercises over four days with Russian and Chinese naval contingents in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean.
Following the Marine Security Belt war games — the first of their kind between the three countries — Iranian Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi suggested the “era of American free action in the region is over” and that US forces would need to “leave the region.”
Iranian Navy and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) contingents conducted war games and naval exercises involving drills for rescue and targeting operations with three Russian warships and a Chinese guided-missile destroyer over a 17,000 sq.km area in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean.
The Gulf of Oman is a sensitive waterway that connects the highly strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which approximately one-fifth of the world’s oil passes. The strait has become the world’s most dangerous flashpoint as Iran-US tensions escalated following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear accord in 2018.
The past year has witnessed numerous attacks on tankers and oil facilities in the Arab Gulf that the United States and its Western allies have held Iran responsible for. Sweeping US sanctions have choked the Iranian economy by targeting its oil exports, financial system and other key industries, such as steel and coal.
Amid growing tensions, Iran shot down an advanced American drone, known as the Global Hawk and which has a price tag of more than $200 million, in Gulf waters last June. The United States responded to growing threats in the Gulf by bolstering military reinforcements and stepping up surveillance operations, including establishing a multinational naval task force and the International Maritime Security Construct based in Bahrain to help secure regional waterways.
Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani, commander of the Iranian naval flotilla, described the war games as representing “the new triangle of power in the sea” while suggesting their biggest achievement was to demonstrate that Iran could not be isolated. Russia and, increasingly, China are identified by the United States as the biggest challenges to its global primacy and dominance but neither is keen on mounting a direct challenge.
It was reported in December that Khanzadi invited Pakistan to join the war games when he visited Islamabad. Pakistan, which shares cordial relations and a nearly 1,000km border with Iran, has made diplomatic efforts to ease tensions between Iran and the United States and with Saudi Arabia but did not participate in the drills.
China maintains close diplomatic and trade ties with Iran as well as with Russia. China is estimated to import about half of its annual crude oil needs from the Gulf, with Iran traditionally its main supplier.
Owing to US sanctions, Iran is now the seventh-largest supplier to China, although Beijing is believed to have remained Iran’s largest oil buyer last year. Iran’s oil exports have collapsed to less than 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) from a peak of 2.8 million bpd before the United States imposed its most stringent sanctions regime.
China participated in the war games and exercises with a single guided-missile destroyer as part of what it described a “normal military exchange” while suggesting it was “not necessarily connected with the regional situation.”
The exercises coincided with a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American civilian defence contractor and wounded four service members. The United States responded with air strikes on Iran-backed forces in Iraq and Syria that killed 25 Al-Hashed al-Shaabi fighters and led to pro-Iran demonstrators besieging the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The withdrawal of Al-Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force from the compound, one of the United States’ most heavily guarded and sensitive overseas facilities, was followed by the dramatic air strike that killed Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s al-Quds Force, after he arrived at Baghdad International Airport.
US officials said the operation targeting Soleimani, which may lead to serious reprisal attacks by Iran and its allies and which was condemned by Russia and China among others, was necessary to avert “imminent attacks” against US targets by the IRGC.
It remains to be seen if Iran’s maiden joint war games and naval exercises with Russia, which has increasingly sought to highlight its regional relevance in the Gulf, and China, which may want to enhance its own regional profile, transpire towards some type of a loose military alliance to counter American primacy but that remains an unlikely possibility.
As far as Iran’s international isolation is concerned, Tehran’s dangerous standoff with Washington is one that military exchanges with other international powers, even Russia and China, still do not drastically change the equation as developments in recent days confirm.