China, Russia, Iran join forces for war games amid US-Houthi clashes

As the United States continues to conduct strikes against rebels targeting commercial vessels off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the naval forces of China, Russia and Iran have entered nearby waters to conduct joint exercises and showcase their maritime military prowess.

The drills, called “Maritime Security Belt-2024,” began Tuesday in the Gulf of Oman and follow Tehran’s calls to establish a “maritime security belt” among members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is led by Beijing and Moscow, in a bid to counter the military influence of the U.S. and its allies at sea.

Reportedly acting as observers to the multinational maneuvers are fellow SCO members Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan, in addition to Azerbaijan, Oman and South Africa.

Ships involved in the exercises include the guided-missile destroyer Urumqi, the guided-missile frigate Linyi and the supply ship Dongpinghu of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, as well as the Varyag guided-missile cruiser and Marshal Shaposhnikov frigate of the Russian navy. Up to 10 vessels and two helicopters were set to be supplied by Iran’s naval forces, including the maritime branch of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

“The purpose of holding this exercise is to consolidate security and its foundations in the region,” a report by the IRGC’s official news site said on Tuesday, “and to expand multilateral cooperation among the participating countries to show their ability to jointly support world peace, maritime security, and to create a maritime group in the future.”

“The goals of this drill,” the IRGC report added, “include strengthening the security of international maritime trade, combating piracy and maritime terrorism, helping humanitarian measures such as exchange of information for maritime rescue operations and to exchange operational and tactical experiences.”

Russian missile cruiser Varyag fires a Vulkan anti-ship cruise missile during September 2021 exercises in the Pacific Ocean.

Russian Ministry of Defense

The drills begin as tensions across the Middle East continue to mount on the sidelines of the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement in Gaza, sparking an intensified U.S. military presence in the region. As Iran-aligned militias open fire on both Israel and U.S. troops on several fronts, one “Axis of Resistance” group has taken the conflict to the sea by targeting civilian vessels said to be tied to Israel in some of the world’s most crucial trade routes.

Since November of last year, a month after the war in Gaza erupted, Yemen’s Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, has conducted dozens of operations against commercial vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, prompting the U.S. to form a coalition with several other nations, known as Operation Prosperity Guardian, in a bid to deter the campaign. But even with the U.S. and the U.K. conducting joint strikes on Ansar Allah sites within Yemen, the powerful group has continued to claim new attacks on a regular basis.

In a statement issued Monday, Ansar Allah military spokesperson Yahya Saree announced the latest operation involving anti-ship missiles launched against the Pinocchio, a Liberia-flagged cargo ship transiting the Red Sea. The attack took place one day after U.S. Central Command announced the latest joint U.S.-U.K. strikes against Yemen late Sunday.

Saree vowed to intensify attacks through the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began on Sunday.

Iran has praised Ansar Allah’s actions in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, while rejecting allegations that it had any direct control over the group it has been widely accused of arming. At the same time, Tehran has condemned the U.S.-led attacks on Yemen.

Russia, too, has criticized the U.S.-U.K. strikes against Yemen, while urging a diplomatic solution to the maritime unrest. Chinese officials have also urged for calm. Neither Beijing nor Moscow recognizes Ansar Allah as the legitimate government of Yemen despite its control of the capital for more than nine years, but they have intensified cooperation with Tehran, including in the field of defense.

Relations among the three received a new boost last July when Iran became a full member of the SCO. At the beginning of this year, Iran further strengthened ties with China, Russia and several other major powers by becoming a member of the BRICS coalition, which also received Saudi Arabia as a new member following a Beijing-brokered deal to restore ties between rivals Riyadh and Tehran.

While Saudi Arabia has been an active participant in Yemen’s civil war, directly backing the neighboring country’s international government in operations against Ansar Allah, fighting has subsided since a ceasefire established nearly two years ago with support from the United Nations. Notably, Saudi Arabia has not joined the U.S.-led Operation Prosperity Guardian coalition against Ansar Allah, with Bahrain being only the Arab nation to do so.

For Iran, the latest drills with China and Russia offer an opportunity for the Islamic Republic to demonstrate both its coordination with major powers, as well as its own efforts to develop a powerful naval force capable of deterring threats in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Last week, at a ceremony attended by Iranian Army chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, the Iranian Navy marked the delivery of more than 40 new vessels and weapons, including cruise missiles, torpedoes, air defense systems and drones. Just one week prior, IRGC Navy chief Rear Admiral Ali Reza Tangsiri announced two new ships armed with new missiles.