Efforts to save the support ship Kharg, after hours of struggling with a fire that broke out in one of the ship's systems, were in vain, according to Fars and Tasmin news agencies. The Iranian navy's largest ship sank after a fire broke out on board near the coast of Jask, located in the Gulf of Oman about 1,270 kilometres southeast from Tehran near the Strait of Hormuz, which provides access to the Gulf.
The ship's crew was evacuated before the vessel sank. Rescuers struggled for 20 hours after the sailors were evacuated to shore. Satellite images from Planet Labs Inc. analysed by The Associated Press showed the Kharg west of Jask. Satellites from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which detect fires from space, identified a fire at the site just before the time reported by the Fars agency.
The ship, Kharg, was named in honour of the island that serves as Iran's main oil terminal. Built in Great Britain and launched in 1977, it joined the Iranian navy in 1984 after long negotiations following the Iranian Islamic Revolution.
The Navy said in a statement that the ship, which has been in service for more than four decades, had been sent to international waters a few days ago to take part in training manoeuvres.
The sinking is a new naval disaster for Iran. In 2020, 19 Iranian sailors died during manoeuvres after a warship was hit by a missile. In the same year in April, Tehran announced that an Iranian ship, the Saviz, had been damaged in the Red Sea by an explosion of undetermined origin. The New York Times reported that the Saviz had been targeted by Israel in response to earlier Iranian attacks on Israeli vessels in the Caspian Sea.
The incident occurred after a series of mysterious explosions on ships in the Gulf of Oman, which began in 2019. The US Navy later accused Iran of attacking the ships with limpet mines, timer-activated explosives usually placed by divers in the hull of the ship, according to AP.
Nevertheless, Iran denies attacking the ships, although images released by the US navy showed members of the Revolutionary Guard removing an undetonated mine from a ship. The incidents took place in the middle of tensions between Washington and Tehran after the US president at the moment, Donald Trump, unilaterally withdrew his country from the Iran nuclear agreement.
Moreover, the Iranian Government announced a few days ago that its pipeline project to Jask had been completed and that the oil tanker had been transported by pipeline to the harbour. The Kharg was one of the few ships in the Iranian Navy capable of supplying fuel to other ships in the sea. It could also lift heavy goods and serve as a take-off platform for helicopters.
For Iran, the purpose is to export oil from Khask, which would save a few days' sailing time and would allow oil tankers to avoid the Strait of Hormuz, which is at the centre of strategic tensions between Iran and the United States, whose warships are in the region.
The Iranian navy patrols the Gulf of Oman and the high seas, while the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard operates in the shallower waters of the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf. However, in the last few months the Navy commissioned a slightly bigger commercial oil tanker, called the Makran, which has been converted to perform a similar role to the Kharg.
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world's most important and strategic sea passages through where one fifth of the world's oil production circulates. In the Gulf of Oman, the Iranian Navy manages all operations, through which about 20 % of the world's traded oil transits.