TEHRAN/MOSCOW/BEIJING/NEW YORK (Financial Times) -- Russia, China and Iran launched their first joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman on Friday in a direct challenge to US influence in the Middle East.
The move reflects growing co-operation between the US's two main rivals and the Islamic republic, which is under sanctions imposed by Washington.
"The most important achievement of these drills ... is this message that the Islamic republic of Iran cannot be isolated," vice-admiral Gholamreza Tahani, a deputy naval commander, said. "These exercises show that relations between Iran, Russia and China have reached a new high level while this trend will continue in the coming years."
The exercises brought a firm rebuke from the US, with the state department telling the Financial Times that Iran should "think twice" about conducting joint naval exercises, warning that such actions "should concern all nations with an interest in safeguarding freedom of navigation in the region".
The Gulf has become a flash point between Washington and Tehran after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Iranian nuclear deal and imposed sanctions on the country in May 2018. Tehran shot down a US surveillance drone in June and seized a British-flagged oil tanker for allegedly violating its territorial waters in July.
Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute, said the joint naval drills had been choreographed by the three countries to send a message that US influence in the region was waning.
"This is a carefully calculated exercise in which all three participants are winners: Iran gets to claim it is a regional power, Russia demonstrates its role as the key actor in the Middle East, and China can show it is a global naval power," Mr Eyal said. "The strategic message is that these are the countries shaping events in the Middle East."
Iran has repeatedly opposed the presence of foreign forces in the Gulf and threatened to make oil shipments insecure for all countries if its own crude sales are blocked by the US or regional states. The US has accused Iran of attacking at least six oil vessels in the area in May and June, charges that Tehran denies.
The naval drills, which will include tactical exercises such as rescuing frigates under attack, began in the port city of Chabahar in southeastern Iran and are due to continue in northern parts of the Indian Ocean.
Russia said the joint exercises were legal and focused on ensuring regional stability. "We are dealing with the issues of maintaining stability in the region, security and the fight against terrorism," said Maria Zakharova, of the Russian foreign ministry. "This co-operation and interaction is built on both a bilateral and multilateral basis but exclusively on a legal basis."
China's foreign and defence ministries described the exercises as "normal military-to-military co-operation". "It is not necessarily connected with the regional situation," the defence ministry added.
The initiative comes after a US-led naval coalition, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, launched operations in the Gulf in November to guarantee the safe supply of oil from the region. The UK and Australia have also agreed to send warships.
Cmdr Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, said the US was monitoring the joint exercise and would "continue to work with our partners and allies to ensure freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in international waterways".
The Russian, Chinese and Iranian drills are being conducted near the Strait of Hormuz, one of two choke points for tankers travelling between Iran and China.
China imports about half its annual crude oil requirement with Iran being its seventh-largest supplier last year.
Iran's daily oil exports have plummeted to fewer than 500,000 barrels from 2.8m bpd before the sanctions were introduced. China is thought to have remained Iran's top customer.
Moscow has condemned the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and sought to find alternative trade and finance mechanisms to offset the impact of the sanctions.
After the joint exercises conclude, Mohammad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, is due to visit Moscow on Monday for discussions with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, on "the development of ties in the trade, economic, humanitarian and other practical fields", said Russia's foreign ministry.