The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) lost its biggest replenishment vessel, the IRINS Kharg, after it caught fire on June 1 in the vicinity of Jask port. Though no deaths were reported, the Kharg’s sinking is akin to the IRIN losing its Titanic. The demoralizing sight was filmed and photographed and left Tehran with little choice to deny the occurrence.
The Kharg’s sinking happened at a time when Iran has experienced back-to-back subversive attacks and peaking tensions with Israel. Yet, there has been no official hint of a foreign hand in the sinking of the 37-year-old ship so far. It is most likely that a boiler malfunctioned on the ship which was repaired in 2016 using domestically sourced parts. Even though the Kharg was a modified OI-class fleet replenishment oiler, the UK will not supply Iran with spare parts due to the multilayered sanctions against it.
Though the Kharg was ordered during the rule of the Shah in 1974, its delivery ran into problems after the Khomeini-led revolution even though its full payment had been made.
The Kharg’s sunken hull visible from satellite images will act as a depressing reminder for the IRIN to take repair and overhaul a little more seriously. Over a year ago, after a friendly fire incident, Iran lost the IRINS Konarak, another modified support and logistical ship. The incident killed 19 sailors aboard as well. The light frigate, the IRINS Damavand, was Iran’s other recent significant naval loss. It ran aground beyond repair in January 2018 at Bandar-e Anzali on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea.
Furthermore, the Kharg was a training ship for 300 to 400 naval cadets. Even when the ship caught fire, it had some 400 cadets aboard to join a naval drill with the Russian navy weeks later. Besides, it was an integral part of Iran’s dream of a blue-water navy as it sailed to the Mediterranean in 2011 and participated in the IRIN’s bid to operate in the Gulf of Mexico in 2014. The IRIN may not be equally confident about longer voyages with its newly-commissioned and locally-modified auxiliary ship, the IRINS Makran, currently sailing towards Venezuela.
For years to come, the IRINS Makran will remain the IRIN’s mainstay support ship and forward offshore staging base. However, the IRINS Makran is by no means comparable to the IRINS Kharg for it is a freshly converted oil tanker with a sizeable helipad and other self-defense armaments. In addition, it is able to carry and launch cargo, boats and submersibles. The IRINS Makran may appear to be quite formidable on paper but it is nowhere close to what an expeditionary mobile base offers to other navies.
Considering the significance of the IRINS Makran’s voyage to Venezuela, Iran has not recalled it to join drills with the Russian navy. The locally-converted tanker will deliver Iran’s Zolfaghar Peykaap III-class missile boats to Venezuela besides what can be seen from satellite images. In recent years, mineral-rich Caracas has been a vital buyer of Tehran’s military hardware, goods and services, paying largely with gold. Beyond a symbolic defiance of US warnings, Iran’s insistence on continuing the IRINS Makran’s voyage despite the Kharg’s loss signifies long-term commitments to Caracas and monetary benefits attached to the cargo on board.
Iran’s strategists are currently pondering over options to fill the void after the sinking of the IRINS Kharg. The easiest option could be to modify another oil tanker to play a supporting logistical role. Iran procuring a state-of-the-art replacement is only possible in half a decade or so regardless of whether the nuclear deal stand-off is resolved and the sanctions are lifted. Aware of its technological, financial and diplomatic limitations, Tehran will likely take the option of modifying another oil tanker to commission the IRINS Makran II. Even the Iranian government financing the IRIN for it to repurpose another ship is a controversial issue as it is well-known that the IRGC Navy is prioritized when it comes to budgetary allocations. Iran’s existing military hardware shopping list is dependent on the lifting of the Trump-era sanctions and compliance with the nuclear deal. Whatever finances will be available in the future, Tehran’s most urgent military needs will be influenced by the evolving regional situation rather than its intercontinental outreach. After the United States returns to the nuclear deal, Iran will not need to posture aggressively in the Atlantic, thus reducing its urgency and ambition to commission large, uber-expensive warships and support vessels.