- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The largest vessel in Iran‘s navy sank in the Gulf of Oman on Wednesday after an unexplained fire broke out in the engine room and spread throughout the ship.

According to the semi-official Fars news agency, the 400 crew members who were aboard the logistics ship Kharg at the time managed to escape before the ship eventually plunged into the water near the Iranian port of Jask, about 800 miles southeast of Tehran. Iranian officials told Fars that 20 people received minor injuries.

It was only the latest maritime disaster to strike Iran in recent years, amid both growing tensions with Israel and the West and an attempt by the Biden administration to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that was repudiated by President Trump three years later.

“A 20-hour effort to extinguish the fire by the ship’s damage control team, which were joined by firefighting crews as well as military and civilian forces from other nearby vessels failed to save [the] Kharg,” Fars reported, citing an unidentified Iranian Navy official.

Iranian officials have not publicly identified the cause of the fire. The ship was reportedly in international waters for a training exercise when the fire broke out.

Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stepped up his warnings that Iran is trying to secure a nuclear bomb, saying this week he was willing to risk “friction” with the new Biden administration to defend Israel‘s interests whether a new nuclear deal was signed or not.

U.S., Iranian and international negotiators meeting again this week in Geneva have been sending out the most positive signals yet that a revived deal is in sight.

“I am sure that the next round will be the one in which we will finally get a deal,” Enrique Mora, chief coordinator of the talks, told reporters as the fifth round of indirect U.S.-Iranian negotiations wrapped up on Wednesday.

There are two scenarios for what happened aboard the Kharg, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an analyst who studies Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies: either the 40-year-old ship was poorly maintained or it was targeted for sinking by an adversary such as Israel.

While Mr. Ben Taleblu believes shoddy maintenance is the most likely reason, he said neither explanation should be quickly discounted, given the scale and scope of the ongoing shadow war between Israel and Iran.

“This should be a wake-up call for the Biden administration,” he said. “The Islamic Republic is not 10 feet tall. Sustained pressure can achieve results.”

A converted oil tanker, the Kharg primarily serves as a forward support base for Iranian naval operations. The ship is part of Iran’s Navy rather than the more high-profile Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) naval force.

Iran has an aging conventional navy. They prioritize the IRGC navy” over it, Mr. Ben Taleblu said. “They’ve cannibalized parts of their fleet before.”

According to The Associated Press, the Kharg was built in Great Britain and launched in 1977. Much of Iran’s aging military equipment dates back to before the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and mechanical problems are widespread. Earlier this week, malfunctioning ejector seats in an Iranian F-5 fighter jet killed two pilots when it went off while still parked in the hangar.

It’s also entirely possible, Mr. Ben Taleblu said, that the sinking of the Kharg was merely the last salvo in an ongoing shadow war between Iran and the West. In April, an Iranian ship called the Saviz stationed in the Red Sea was heavily damaged by a mine attack suspected of being carried out by Israel.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has accused Tehran of being behind a series of guerrilla actions against commercial ships operating in the Gulf of Oman. Iran officials have denied any part in the mine attacks.

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