June 7, 2021
Hossein Aryan, a British-trained former officer in the Iranian Navy, was the original operations officer on the Iranian ship Kharg, the navy’s largest vessel, which debuted in 1980. The ship sank on June 2 in the Gulf of Oman near the port city of Jask after a fire reportedly broke out in the engine room. The Kharg was built in Britain and launched in 1977. It was the latest in a string of naval accidents involving Iranian ships in the last two years.
Aryan — a longtime editor at RFE/RL — spoke with Golnaz Esfandiari and RFE/RL’s Radio Farda about the Kharg and circumstances of its demise, which he thinks are questionable. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
RFE/RL: How did you feel when you learned about the sinking of Kharg? Did you find it strange that the entire ship sank because of a fire?
Hossein Aryan: I would like to say that a fire on board any ship poses a significant risk to the safety of the vessel and its crew. In the Iranian Navy, like others, firefighting and damage control is taken seriously. Even when a ship is berthed, on its daily rota, without fail one can see that a team is allocated for firefighting and, without warning, this team is summoned by the [duty officer] to fight hypothetical fires at places of his choosing on that ship.
Besides firefighting, damage control is taken very seriously, which is the emergency control of situations that may cause the sinking of a ship such as the rupture of a pipe or hull, especially below the waterline; or even damage occurring if a ship is in combat, or if a ship goes aground. Firefighting and damage control and training the crew to be able to do these jobs are of utmost importance to navies, including the Iranian Navy.
I was therefore shocked when I heard that the Kharg had sunk.
The Kharg had fire pumps — one of which would be working at all times [and] emergency pumps, many [fire] extinguishers [especially in the engine room], a CO2 flooding system, a sprinkler system, flame detectors, and smoke detectors. Also some 400 safety circuits, each of which is capable of sounding the alarm in the engine room and on the bridge in case of a malfunction.
With all these precautions it is hard to see how the fire became uncontrollable.
It has been said that the fire broke out as a result of an explosion in one of the boilers. We know that the Kharg underwent a major refit from 2014 to 2016, during which major improvements were made to its boilers. In spite of this, it is unlikely that such an explosion would lead to an uncontrollable fire or cause damage to the hull and lead to the flooding of the engine room.
A voice recording of a telephone conversation between two former personnel of the Kharg on social media, quoting their rescued friends from the ship, indicates that during a failed paralleling of two main generators of the ship several wires and circuits caught fire, leading to a power outage and the plunging of the entire ship into darkness. Apparently, the emergency generator and other small generators could not be started and the ship remained in total darkness.
It has also been claimed that the pipe connecting the day tank to one of the main generators providing electricity to the ship had burst and, as no one was in the generator room, the generator stopped functioning while at the same time the fire spread quickly while the ship was dark.
There are other claims as well. Whether the cause of the fire in the engine room was an electrical failure, damage caused by improper repair and maintenance, poor-quality materials used during the ship’s refit, or negligence — the real cause of the fire has not been officially confirmed and it is doubtful that the Islamic republic would ever do so.
Negligence Or Sabotage?
RFE/RL: Do you find it suspicious? Could it have been an act of sabotage?
Aryan: In spite of several possibilities to explain the cause of the fire in the engine room and the power outage on board, it is hard to see how the ship could have sunk. The fire invariably can cause extensive damage in the engine room and various decks, but the ship can still remain afloat, even if the engine room is being flooded. Photos shows that the ship did not lean at a dangerous angle to the port or starboard side and sunk from the stern while the bow section of the ship — mainly intact — remained above water.
In the light of these photos, the possibility of flooding due to a large crack or hole in the hull of the engine room area cannot be ruled out. Taking into account that the bottom and sides of the Kharg had two complete layers of watertight hull surface, it is possible that the fire and flooding was due to an act of sabotage or as a result of a hostile action.
The sinking of the Kharg comes after a period in which there has been a series of explosions aboard other ships in the Gulf of Oman and surrounding waters, a region of sensitive shipping routes and simmering geopolitical tensions.
In early April, an Iranian ship called the MV Saviz, a guard base anchored for years in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, off Yemen, was targeted and damaged by mines on its hull apparently by Israeli commandos.
A Major Asset For The Iranian Navy
RFE/RL: How big of a loss is it for Iran? Can the country replace the Kharg in the near future?
Aryan: The Kharg, with its varied capabilities in terms of operation and training, was a major asset for the Iranian Navy. In this context, the navy is now left with the Makran, an ex-oil tanker converted into a sea base that officially joined the navy in mid-January.
Much bigger than the Kharg, this ship [the Makran] can deploy special forces, act as a base for fast boats, and provide logistical support to other ships. This ship — accompanied by a destroyer — is now heading toward Brazil, according to unnamed sources in the United States.
The Kharg’s sinking marks the latest major naval incident for [Iran] in recent years. In May 2020, an Iranian ship called the Konarak, during a military exercise in the Gulf of Oman, was struck by a missile from the [Iranian] destroyer Jamaran, killing 15 sailors and wounding 19 others.
In another incident in January 2018, the Damavand, a destroyer similar to the Jamaran, sunk after hitting the breakwater at Bandar Anzali on the Caspian Sea.
Purchased By Shah To Modernize Iranian Navy
RFE/RL: Tell us about the history of the Kharg and the reasons the shah decided to purchase the ship a few years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution?
Aryan: The Kharg, named after the island that is Iran’s main oil terminal in the Persian Gulf, was ordered by the government of Iran in October 1974. The builder was Swan Hunter, a shipbuilding design and engineering company in Wallsend-on-Tyne, near Newcastle, in England.
The ship was laid down in January 1976 and launched in February 1977 by Gholam Reza [Pahlavi, the brother of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted in the 1979 revolution], and named by his wife, Manizheh Pahlavi. After the fitting out and several weeks of sea trials, the ship was handed over to the Iranian Navy on April 25, 1980. The Kharg was ready to sail to Iran but the British government refused to issue an export license for the ship. This meant that the ship and its 200 crew members could not leave the United Kingdom.
Britain, under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, informed the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran that without the release of U.S. hostages (eds. U.S. diplomats held in Iran following the 1979 revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy), the Kharg would not be issued an export license.
As a result, with the exception of a skeleton team, the rest of the crew left the ship and returned to Iran just days before the start of the Iran-Iraq War.
However, after the release of the U.S. hostages in January 1981, the British government declared that an export license would not be issued for the foreseeable future, citing the detention of a British national in Iran, Andrew [Pyke, a businessman accused of spying who was never charged].
After the release of Pyke, negotiations between the governments of Iran and Britain took root and finally the ship, almost four years after its original handover, underwent an overhaul and started its sea trial with the Iranian crew aboard. On October 5, 1984, the Kharg started its maiden voyage to Iran and formally joined the Iranian Navy.
Concerted efforts during the Shah-era — based on well-thought-out military plans — were made to modernize and expand the Iranian Navy. As a result, the Imperial Iranian Navy gained robust capabilities and became the most powerful navy in the region.
Purchasing the Kharg and other ships from Britain together with ships and submarines from the United States were part of the plan to expand Iran’s naval presence well beyond the waters of the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.
The Kharg and three highly advanced U.S.-made, Spruance-class destroyers [that were under construction but their contracts were canceled after the 1979 revolution] were planned to be the nucleus of the Iranian Navy that was to be kept in a huge tri-service base in [the southern port city of] Chabahar in Sistan-Baluchestan Province. The Navy was supposed to establish its presence in the northwestern part of the India Ocean.
RFE/RL: What tasks was Kharg supposed to do?
Aryan: At 207 meters long, with a displacement of 33,500 tons, the Kharg was a modern fleet replenishment oiler, with the capability to replenish at sea (RAS). Due to its logistics capabilities, it could transport weapons, food, fuel, and troops. Ideal also for the safe transfer of valuable or politically sensitive assets, such as imported military equipment.
The ship was a long-distance, blue-water asset for the Iranian Navy because of its ability to extend the range of Iranian warships. Without this ship, Iranian destroyers and frigates could not embark on extended deployments without several port visits along the way.
With its two hangars, the Kharg could carry large and heavy helicopters and, as a result, provide extra operational capabilities in terms of antisubmarine warfare for the naval group it belonged to.
RFE/RL: How was it used in recent years?
Aryan: Since 2009 the Kharg accompanied many ships on their extended period of anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden or off the coast of Somalia. [It was also used] during their friendly-foreign-port visits.
In terms of training, the Kharg was a suitable ship to provide on-the-job training to large numbers of midshipmen from the Imam Khomeini Maritime University in Noshahr.
In this role, before its sinking, the ship had some 200 cadets on board.