Russia and Iran are to hold joint naval exercises around the Strait of Hormuz, raising the risk of a dangerous confrontation with western forces in the Gulf.

They have pledged to stage the war games by the end of the year, even as Britain and the United States step up their military presence in Gulf waters with a new joint task force to protect commercial shipping.

The announcement marks a milestone in improving relations between Tehran and Moscow, former rivals who have found common ground in Syria’s civil war where both are supporting the Assad regime.

Tensions in the Strait of Hormuz have increased since the US pulled out of a 2015 deal curbing Iran’s nuclear activities and reimposed punishing sanctions that have cut off oil exports and decimated its economy.

Iran has been blamed for a series of mine attacks on tankers in the Gulf and last month it seized a British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero. That was in retaliation for Britain’s capture of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar which was thought to be smuggling oil to Syria in violation of European sanctions.

The continuing threat to shipping has forced the UK to send two warships to the Gulf, where they will join US vessels. Israel will take part in the “maritime security mission” in the Gulf contributing intelligence and in other fields, its foreign minister said last night.

European allies have shied away from joining a formal US-led coalition but yesterday China said it was studying the proposal and might send escorts for Chinese commercial vessels “if there happens to be a very unsafe situation”.

In Tehran, President Rouhani warned in a live televised speech yesterday that shipping in the critical waterway would not be safe until Iranian tankers could ply their routes unhindered by sanctions. “Peace with Iran is the mother of all peace; war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” he said. “A strait for a strait. It can’t be that the Strait of Hormuz is free for you and the Strait of Gibraltar is not free for us.”

Iran unveiled three new precision-guided rockets yesterday, one of which can be fired from an aircraft.

Russia and Iran already hold joint naval exercises in the Caspian Sea but this is the first time that they will conduct drills around the Hormuz strait. Brigadier-General Amir Hatami, the Iranian defence minister, said the exercise would be “another significant achievement of power and dignity for the Islamic Republic of Iran”; one that had been realised “despite the viciousness and conspiracies of the Great Satan America and its mercenaries”.

The war games will give Russia an opening to project its power in a new Middle Eastern arena. Nicole Grajewski, a researcher on Russia-Iran relations at Oxford university, said: “It shows an impetus for co-operation beyond Syria. Russia uses the Middle East as a region in which it can be an order builder, and to show that it can be like the US.”

Mr Rouhani came to power in 2013 with a mandate to seek co-operation with the West but his efforts were viewed with scepticism by the clerical regime, which viewed Washington as untrustworthy. The historic nuclear deal curbing Iran’s nuclear programme in return for the easing of sanctions was signed under President Obama in 2015.

Iran’s economy had not yet recovered when President Trump came into office promising to dismantle the deal.

Iran holds its Sunni Gulf rivals, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — along with Israel and Mr Trump’s hawkish adviser, John Bolton — responsible for Mr Trump’s hardening position on Iran. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, has dismissed them as the “B team” and accused them of pushing Mr Trump towards war.

Last week Mr Zarif was himself placed under sanctions, cutting off the main avenues for diplomatic outreach. In a press conference yesterday he claimed the decision was a retaliation for his refusal to meet Mr Trump in the White House last month.

Fears of war in the Gulf have forced a rethink among some regional powers. Last week Iran and the UAE discussed maritime issues in their first face-to-face dialogue since 2013.

Mr Zarif made fresh overtures to the Gulf states yesterday. “Thank God the number of those in the B-Team is decreasing,” he said. “We want the relations with our neighbours to improve. Doors of Iran, as the country of your brothers, are open to you.”

Dina Esfandiary, an analyst at Harvard’s Belfer Centre, said US hawkishness was helping Iran to present itself as reasonable. “Any escalation is terrifying for a country like the UAE because it is first in the line of fire. If even one missile is fired, Dubai would empty of expats,” she said.

TANKER WARS

June 7 Four oil tankers are attacked at anchor off Fujairah in United Arab Emirates.

June 13 Two tankers, Front Altair, and Kokuka Courageous, are damaged by explosions in the Gulf of Oman.

July 13 Iran seizes MT Riahowned by the UAE. Three of the crew are still detained.

July 19 Iranian forces board the British-owned tanker Mesdar, warning the crew then sending it on its way. On the same day the UK-flagged tanker Stena Impero is seized in the Strait of Hormuz for “breaking international maritime rules”. It is impounded at the southern port of Bandar Abbas. The UK has rejected an offer by Tehran to swap Impero for an Iranian tanker seized by British forces on July 4 and held in Gibraltar.

July 31 Iran seizes an Iraqi tanker and steers it to the port of Bushehr.

THE TIMES (of London)

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