China and Iran to conduct joint naval exercises in the Persian Gulf

Thomas Erdbrink and Chris Buckley
Sergii Dmytriienko | Collection | Getty Images

Two Chinese warships have docked at Iran's principal naval port for the first time in history, Iranian admirals told state television on Sunday, adding that both countries would conduct four days of joint naval exercises.

On Sunday, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported that Chinese Navy ships involved in protecting shipping in the Gulf of Aden stopped at an Iranian port on Saturday for a "friendly visit." One of the vessels was the Changchun, a guided-missile destroyer, the report said.

The news agency posted images of one of the destroyers docking in the port of Bandar Abbas, where it was given a military welcome.

The Iranian and Chinese Navies were scheduled to start joint exercises on Monday, focusing on rescue missions, Iranian news media reported. China has been expanding the areas where its navy operates, most recently joining the effort to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia.

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The visit to Bandar Abbas is an example of the growing ties between China and Iran. China is already the principal buyer of Iranian oil, and Iran uses much of the profit to buy Chinese products, deals complicated by the international sanctions over Iran's nuclear program.

The website of the Chinese Navy reported that this was the first visit to Iran by Chinese naval ships. The report did not mention any joint exercises.

A Chinese fleet commander, Rear Adm. Huang Xinjian, said the visit was intended to "deepen mutual understanding, and to enhance exchanges between our two countries' navies."

"I'm sure that this visit will encourage the constant advancement of friendly cooperation between our two countries' navies," Admiral Huang added.

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His Iranian counterparts said drills would focus on safety at sea and the fight against piracy.

"Discussing and studying the two countries' naval relief and rescue operations and drills, confronting sea incidents and accidents and gaining the necessary technical preparedness are among the exercises to be practiced with the Chinese Navy forces," said Adm. Amir Hossein Azad, commander of Iran's First Naval Zone.

The Iranian state newspaper Kayhan reported on Saturday that 650 sailors were on the Chinese warships and that they would also compete in "sport events" with Iranian sailors.

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Iran's main competitor in the Persian Gulf is the United States Navy, which has a base in Bahrain and stations at least one aircraft carrier in the region. On several occasions, Iran has threatened to choke off the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between Iran and the United Arab Emirates that is a gateway for 40 percent of the world's oil and gas shipments.

The naval visit indicates that China fears that a deal over Iran's nuclear program could lead to an improvement in relations between Iran and the West, said Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian economist who is close to the government.

"It shows most of all that the Chinese want to keep their lucrative business relations with Iran," he said. "Not that they are ready to defend us."