The circumstances are still unclear on what caused a fire on the Kharg, one of Iran’s largest warships, on Wednesday. The fire soon raged out of control and caused the ship to sink into the Gulf of Oman. This is the latest black eye suffered by Iran’s Navy. 

The Kharg’s Fiery Demise

According to the Fars News agency, the fire began in the boiler room of the 679-foot Kharg. After a 20-hour damage control and rescue operation, the ship sank near the Iranian port of Jask, just about 800 miles southeast of Tehran in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz. All of the sailors were saved, however, 33 suffered injuries in the blaze.

The Associated Press, via Planet Labs’ satellite photos, showed the Kharg in the Gulf around midday Tuesday with no sign of any fire or distress onboard.

The Kharg had a crew of 400 sailors and cadets and was used as a seagoing resupply ship. It could lift heavy cargo and had the capability to launch and land helicopters on her deck. The Iranian government lists the Kharg as a “training ship.” The ship was used to train cadets from the Imam Khomeini Naval University on the Caspian Sea.

The Kharg aflame and about to sink.
A photo from Wednesday morning shows the fires on the Kharg raging out of control shortly before the ship sank. (Iranian Military)

An image released by the Iranian government showed sailors in lifejackets fleeing the fire that had reached the upper reaches of the ship. An Iranian army official told the Islamic Republic’s News Agency that the fire started in the engine room and got hot enough that parts of the ship’s body melted and fell into the sea.

An investigation has begun on the causes of the fire.

The Kharg was built in 1977 in the U.K. and was finally sold to Iran in 1984. Much of the aging ship’s equipment has been upgraded in recent years. 

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A Slew of Naval Incidents in the Area

A year ago, during an Iranian Navy training exercise near Jask, an errant missile struck a nearby navy ship killing 19 and wounding 15 Iranian sailors. In 2018, an Iranian destroyer sunk in the Caspian Sea after crashing into a breakwater during a storm.

And since 2019 several commercial ships have been damaged in the Gulf, reportedly by sailors placing limpet mines on them. 

The U.S. has accused Iran of placing the mines on shipping in the Straits of Hormuz. Although Iran denied the accusation, U.S. Navy video footage showed Iranian Revolutionary Guard members removing one unexploded limpet mine from a ship.

 Meanwhile, Tehran has accused Israel of doing the same thing. In early April, the Iranian freighter, MV Saviz, which had been carrying arms and ammunition for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, was damaged by limpet mines reportedly placed by Israeli commandos. 

Kharg fire
Iranian sailors race away from the flames aboard the Kharg after a fire burned out of control causing the ship to sink. (Iranian Military)

In early May, an Iranian freighter delivering oil to the Syrian port of Latakia was hit by a drone-launched small missile that struck its bridge, killing three crewmen. Iran blamed Israel for that attack as well, but the Israelis, while acknowledging that they will continue to disrupt arms shipments to Iranian proxies in the region, didn’t comment on the attack. 

One unnamed regional official told the Guardian that while the fire on board the Kharg is different, it fits the pattern of attacks

“There have been several hundreds of these attacks,” said the official. “Neither side wants to acknowledge them. They are harassment mainly, with only a few being serious attempts to sink the vessels. The objective seems to be twofold; to deny Tehran revenue streams, and to strike fear into them.”

“The only thing we can say is that a fire started inside the ship. In that sense, it looks different from the others,” the official added.