“Unclear circumstances.” That’s the word from quasi-official Iranian news agencies about the sinking of the Kharg, their largest warship while on patrol in the Gulf of Oman. Initial reports are sketchy, but there appears to have been an explosion in the engine room:
The blaze began around 2:25 a.m. and firefighters tried to contain it, the Fars news agency reported, but their efforts failed to save the 207-meter (679-foot) Kharg, which was used to resupply other ships in the fleet at sea and conduct training exercises. State media reported 400 troops on board fled the vessel, with some 20 suffering injuries.
The vessel sank near the Iranian port of Jask, some 1,270 kilometers (790 miles) southeast of Tehran on the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf. Satellite photos from Planet Labs Inc. analyzed by The Associated Press showed the Kharg off Jask with no sign of a fire as late as 11 a.m. Tuesday.
It’s not the first mysterious ship fire in the region, to which we’ll return in a moment. First, the Guardian has some footage of the Kharg before it sank, some of which has appeared on other media outlets:
What happened? It might be a case of engine failure, neglect, or incompetence by the Kharg’s crew. On the other hand, the rash of other ship fires in the area provides some interesting context:
Iranian officials offered no cause for the fire aboard the Kharg, though they said an investigation had begun. It comes after a series of mysterious explosions that began in 2019 targeting commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. Navy later accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines, timed explosives typically attached by divers to a vessel’s hull.
Iran denied that, though U.S. Navy footage showed Revolutionary Guard members removing one unexploded limpet mine from a ship. The attacks came amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Negotiations on saving the accord continue in Vienna.
It may well be that the US or others have decided to fight fire with fire, literally in this case. Iran’s continuing sabotage of shipping had been cost-free until recently. Perhaps someone, or several someones, decided to increase the disincentives. And this might not have been the first time those disincentives have been applied:
An Iranian military vessel stationed in the Red Sea was damaged by an apparent Israeli mine attack on Tuesday in an escalation of the shadowy naval skirmishing that has characterized the two adversaries’ exchanges in recent years.
The damage to the vessel, which the Iranian news media identified as the Saviz, came as progress was reported on the first day of talks to revive American participation in the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers. Israel, which regards Iran as its most potent foe, strongly opposes a restoration of that agreement, which was abandoned by the Trump administration three years ago. …
Israeli officials had not commented as of Tuesday night, and as a matter of policy they seldom confirm or deny responsibility for actions taken against Iran. But an American official said the Israelis had notified the United States that its forces had struck the vessel at about 7:30 a.m. local time.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private intelligence communications, said that the Israelis had called the attack a retaliation for earlier Iranian strikes on Israeli vessels, and that the Saviz had been damaged below the water line. The vessel’s precise location in the Red Sea was not immediately clear.
That was two months ago. In the interregnum, Iran has harassed Israel with armed drones, and of course backed the Hamas missile attacks on Israeli civilians. Benjamin Netanyahu declared earlier this week that he would press the fight against Iran and its nuclear-weapons program even without the US and at the risk of “tension” with Joe Biden:
The embattled premier, whose political future is in question just 11 days out from a bruising war, said Israel’s biggest threat remains the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. He said Israel is prepared to prevent that from happening even if the United States and other nations succeed in reinstating the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.
“If we have to choose, I hope it doesn’t happen, between friction with our great friend the United States and eliminating the existential threat — eliminating the existential threat” wins, Netanyahu said.
This might very well be one strategy to counter Iranian military strength in the region. Put that together with Netanyahu’s apparently pending exit from office, and the Kharg might have been a very convenient target for a Bibi valediction to Tehran.
Or it could have just been incompetence and/or failure. The IRGC hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory of late. One has to think, however, that the ambiguity in this sinking might be strategic in itself.
Update: Is this also a coincidence?
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) June 2, 2021
A massive fire broke out Wednesday night at the oil refinery serving Iran’s capital, sending thick plumes of black smoke over Tehran. It wasn’t immediately clear if there were injuries.
The fire struck the state-owned Tondgooyan Petrochemical Co. to the south of Tehran, said Mansour Darajati, the director-general of the capital’s crisis management team.
Firefighters believe it struck a pipeline for liquefied petroleum gas at the facility, Darajati told Iranian state television. He did not elaborate.
The circumstances for this are also “not immediately clear,” according to the Associated Press. If these are accidents, they’re hellaciously coincidental. If it’s a brush-back pitch, it’s going to get plenty of attention.