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Why Would Russia, China—and Iran—Plan Joint Naval Exercises?

Why Would Russia, China—and Iran—Plan Joint Naval Exercises?

KARACHI, Pakistan—The waters around the Arabian Peninsula have calmed for the moment, but preparations for combat continue, with joint exercises and security conferences showing just how profoundly the region’s strategic balances are shifting.

As confidence declines in U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s ability to navigate the difficult moral and military choices in the region, new players are entering the picture in and around the Persian Gulf.

An Israeli delegation attended a U.S.-backed maritime-security conference that began Sunday in Manama with delegations from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as a vast international maritime exercise, IMX 19, got under way in the Persian Gulf. Planning involved as many as 22 countries.

The exercise is an annual affair that began in 2012 under the Obama administration, but took on a different coloration after the Iranian-backed attack on Saudi Arabia’s main oil-processing facility on Sept. 14. When Trump and the Saudis backed away from direct military retaliation, military exercises took on heightened significance. Vice Admiral Jim Malloy, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, declared on a visit to Riyadh on Sept. 29 that “engaging and operating closely with regional counterparts is essential to maintain deterrence.”

But at this moment when U.S. policy in the Middle East appears to be in growing disarray, the question emerges: Who will be the guarantor of security for the vast quantities of hydrocarbons produced and shipped from the region? And there are now ample signals that Russia wants to step into a role as part of its expanding influence in the region.

One of the clearest indicators came last month when Iran—yes, Iran—announced through its official media that it would soon participate in joint naval exercises with Russia and China. Yes, China.

Those reports came soon after the United States, in the aftermath of the attacks on Saudi Arabia, said it would be sending a few hundred American troops to bolster the kingdom’s defenses. That augmentation has since been increased to 3,000 U.S. troops. But the Iranian announcement was not merely reactive and should not have come as a surprise, at least where the Russian-Iranian connection was concerned.