Iran has stepped up its military interactions with Russia in the wake of growing tensions with the United States. The recent joint Iran-Russia naval exercise dubbed “Iran-Russia Maritime Security Belt 2021” reflects the intricacies of the geopolitical dynamics in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and highlights Iran’s regional ambition to position itself as a key maritime power – often using its resources to launch asymmetric attacks targeting the United States and its allies in the region.
The joint naval exercise covered 17,000 square kilometers and included numerous tactical exercises such as some target practice and rescue operations. It also included surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missiles and joint naval drills intending to advance anti-piracy operations. The joint naval exercise featured corvette Stoyky and tanker Kola from the Russian navy’s Baltic Fleet and frigate URO Jamaran, patrol ship Mahmudi, support ship Nazeri, supply ship Lavan, corvette Nahdi, and multiple missile boats like Gardouneh, Falakhan, and Tondar from the Iranian side.
The IOR has been a focal point of tension between Iran and the United States as Tehran has repeatedly attacked and prevented oil tankers from passing through the Gulf of Oman in recent years. Iran’s attacks in the region, especially, those targeting vital maritime chokepoints have always been a strong concern for the international community. At the moment, it seems that both Washington and Tehran are waiting rather patiently to see who makes the first concessions to pave the way for new nuclear talks. Iran has repeatedly demanded the immediate removal of all US sanctions while Washington has called on Iran to reduce its uranium enrichment activities prior to starting any new nuclear talks.
Ever since the United States pulled out from the nuclear deal, China and Russia have increased their military cooperation with Iran and Tehran has often touted its engagement with Moscow and Beijing as a strategic card against the United States. Russian and Chinese naval representatives have also increased their visits to Iran in recent years. On the other hand, both China and Russia have also deepened their interactions with other regional states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This indicates that neither Moscow nor Beijing are willing to support Tehran exclusively at the expense of other regional states.
Iran has significantly used its resources to advance its maritime capabilities and in recent years it has expanded its attempts to modernize its submarine fleet. Since one of Iran’s most opted strategies to build pressure on the United States and the Europeans has been to focus on anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weapons systems in the Strait of Hormuz, it has over time focused on developing short-range missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, mines, midget submarines, and torpedoes.
Although Iran initially confirmed that India had accepted the offer to participate in the joint Iran-Russia naval exercise, it is believed that the Indian navy rejected the offer. Some news reports speculated that India rejected the offer due to another planned mission, however, other news reports speculated that the growing tensions between India and China regarding contested border territories, and the news surrounding China’s participation in the exercise were the primary reasons behind India’s navy rejecting the offer. India remains a major naval power in the IOR and has increased its cooperation with the United States and its partners amid growing Chinese assertiveness in the region. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Quad Plus (expanding to New Zealand, South Kora, and Vietnam) reflect the strategic partnership between the United States, Australia, Japan, and India to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region. India has also scaled up its strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent years, thereby, outpacing India’s engagement with Iran in several domains including maritime cooperation. The Joint Committee on Defense Cooperation that holds regular meetings has helped India and Saudi Arabia to widen defense cooperation prospects. Both countries have been engaged in training and capacity-building exercises, intelligence sharing, and maritime security. Royal Saudi Naval Forces and the UAE navy have also advanced cooperation with the Indian navy in recent years.
Iran-Russia cooperation is primarily shaped by a common aim to limit Washington’s influence in the Middle East. The Iranian government often uses the Russia card to display its regional clout, however, despite increased defense cooperation and interactions in Syria, relations between both countries remain rather tense and complicated. If the United States returns to the nuclear deal and subsequently removes the sanctions on Iran, the latter could significantly impact Russian weapons exports to Iran, hence causing further tensions and complications in the relationship between Tehran and Moscow. Amid the present sanctions, only a few countries are willing to sell weapons to Iran. Russia and China have been the most important weapons exporters to Iran in recent years.
Iran in the past few months has increased its military exercises and the joint Iran-Russia naval exercise reflects Iran’s desire to pressurize the Biden administration. Furthermore, amid the interplay of several strategic calculations of regional and global maritime powers, Iran’s interests are largely confined to threatening the stability of the region, particularly of maritime routes to pressurize the United States into starting new nuclear talks.