Iran’s largest warship catches fire, sinks in Gulf of Oman

A naval ship in blue waters
The Iranian naval support ship Kharg, which caught fire and sank on June 2, 2021.
(Iranian army)
Share via

The largest warship in the Iranian navy caught fire and later sank Wednesday in the Gulf of Oman under unclear circumstances, the latest calamity to strike one of the country’s vessels in recent years amid tensions with the West.

The blaze began around 2:25 a.m. and firefighters tried to contain it, the news agency Fars reported, but their efforts failed to save the 679-foot Kharg, which was used to resupply other ships in the fleet at sea and conduct training exercises. State media reported 400 sailors and trainee cadets on board fled the vessel, with 33 suffering injuries.

The ship sank near the Iranian port of Jask, about 790 miles southeast of Tehran on the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.


Photos circulated on Iranian social media showed sailors wearing life jackets evacuating the vessel as a fire burned behind them. Fars published video of thick, black smoke rising from the ship early Wednesday morning. Satellites from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that track fires from space detected a blaze near Jask that started just before the time of the fire reported by Fars.

Iranian officials offered no cause for the fire aboard the Kharg, though they said an investigation had begun.

Meanwhile, 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 or what caused the blaze at the Tondgooyan Petrochemical Co., though temperatures in the capital reached nearly 104 degrees and hot weather in Iran has caused fires in the past.

The fire aboard the Kharg warship follows a series of mysterious explosions that began in 2019 targeting commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. Navy accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines, timed explosives typically attached by divers to a vessel’s hull.

A U.S. warship fired warning shots when vessels of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard came too close to a patrol in the Persian Gulf, officials said.

April 28, 2021

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 Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Negotiations on saving the accord continue in Vienna.

In April, an Iranian ship called the MV Saviz, which is believed to be a Revolutionary Guard base and has been anchored for years in the Red Sea off Yemen, was targeted in an attack suspected to have been carried out by Israel. It escalated a years-long shadow war in the Mideast between the two countries that has included strikes in Syria, assaults on ships and attacks on Iran’s nuclear program.


The Israeli prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday regarding the Kharg. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the U.S. was aware of the loss of the ship, but declined to comment further.

State TV and semiofficial news agencies on Wednesday referred to the Kharg, named after the island that serves as the main oil terminal for Iran, as a “training ship.” The vessel often hosted cadets from the Imam Khomeini Naval University on the Caspian Sea.

Like much of Iran’s major military hardware, the Kharg predated Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. The warship, built in Britain and launched in 1977, entered the Iranian navy in 1984 after lengthy negotiations. That aging military equipment has seen fatal accidents as recently as Tuesday, when a malfunction in the ejector seats of an Iranian F-5 that also predated the revolution killed two pilots while the fighter jet was parked in a hangar.

In recent months, the navy has converted a slightly larger commercial tanker called the Makran for use as a mobile launch platform for helicopters. The Kharg also could launch helicopters on a smaller scale.

But the newer vessel probably can’t fill the role of the Kharg, which could handle both the refueling and resupplying of ships at sea, said Mike Connell of the Center for Naval Analysis, an Arlington, Va.-based federally funded nonprofit that works for the U.S. government.

The Kharg also was seaworthy enough to sail through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea and into South Asia previously and could lift heavy cargo.


“For the regular Iranian navy, this vessel was very valuable because it gave them reach,” Connell said. “That allowed them to conduct operations far afield. They do have other logistics vessels, but the Kharg was kind of the most capable and the largest.”

The sinking of the Kharg marks the latest naval disaster for Iran. In 2020, during an Iranian military training exercise, a missile mistakenly struck a naval vessel near Jask, killing 19 sailors and wounding 15. Also in 2018, an Iranian navy destroyer sank in the Caspian Sea.

Gambrell and Vahdat write for the Associated Press. AP’s Joseph Krauss and Robert Burns contributed to this report.