Israel Holds First Military Drills With 2 Arab States Close to Iran

Muscat: Israel has for the first time publicly joined military exercises with two Gulf Arab states of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain under the auspices of the US naval forces close to the coast of Iran.

An Israeli naval officer told reporters that the start of such military cooperation under US auspices could help counter Iran's "power projection" in the region.

The training focuses on maritime "visit, board, search and seizure tactics" and will "enhance interoperability" between the four participating navies, the US Navy's 5th Fleet said in a statement on Thursday.

"It is exciting to see US forces training with regional partners to enhance our collective maritime security capabilities," Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command, said in a statement.

The US 5th Fleet is based in the tiny Persian Gulf state of Bahrain and operates in the Persian Gulf, Sea of Oman, Red Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean.

The training underscores the shifting dynamics of the region following normalisation agreements between several Arab states and Israel during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Commenting on the drills, a senior Israeli official told Times of Israel, that "Iranian presence is something that we need to push back as much as possible from the State of Israel, from the Red Sea, from the areas that harm our freedom to sail."

"Here the goal is to extend the range of the navy's operations -- for the good of the State of Israel and the IDF -- to extend our ability to detect [threats], to extend our sailing range, to prevent naval terror and also to retaliate, when we must, when it's needed, against what the Iranians are doing," the officer was quoted as saying.

Israel had informally coordinated in regards to their common enmity with Iran with militaries of the Gulf Arab states.

In October, Israel hosted its largest-ever air force exercises. Both the US and the UAE participated along with France and Germany. While the UAE aircraft did not fly during the drills, the Emirates' air force chief travelled to Israel to observe.

Scuffles at sea

Since February, Iran and Israel have been accused of engaging in what analysts have called a naval "shadow war," in which vessels linked to each nation have come under attack in waters around the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in a series of tit-for-tat exchanges.

In April, an Iranian cargo ship, believed to be a base for the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was hit by an explosion in the Red Sea. US media later reported the incident was Israeli retaliation for previous incidents.

Weeks earlier, on March 25, a cargo ship owned by an Israeli company was damaged by a missile in the Arabian Sea in what was suspected to be an Iranian attack, a senior Israeli security official said at the time.

The US and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, have accused Iran of using the waters of the Gulf to ferry weapons to Houthi rebels fighting against Saudi Arabia-backed forces in Yemen.

Earlier this year, the US Navy said it fired warning shots during two separate encounters with Iranian vessels in the Gulf.

Tehran accused the US of trying to "steal" its oil from a Venezuelan tanker last month in the Sea of Oman. The US has disputed the claim, saying it was monitoring the incident. The Iranians seized the ship on October 24, and on Wednesday during a ceremony lauding the officers who carried out the operation called the US account a lie.

The UAE and Bahrain were respectively the first and second Arab countries that normalized their ties with Israel last year under US-pushed agreements which were called the Abraham Accords.

Sudan and Morocco also followed suit soon afterward. The normalization deals, however, have been denounced by Palestinians and and their supporters.

Media reports suggest Saudi Arabia is also expected to join and is reportedly preparing its ultra-conservative population and "waiting for the right moment" to officially announce a normalization deal with the Jewish state.

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