The Iranian warship Kharg, which caught fire and sank in the port of Jask earlier this week, was the country’s largest naval vessel and one of the last ever military acquisitions of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the former Shah of Iran.
Efforts to recover the stricken vessel were pronounced over on Wednesday, June 2 and the ship finally sank beneath the waves after crew members were evacuated. It came a day after reports of an explosion onboard, with fires quickly spreading throughout the vessel.
Kharg was 679ft long and capable of carrying three helicopters at a time. Before the disaster this week, it and was scheduled to go on a training mission to Russia. The destruction of Kharg is the gravest loss to the Iranian navy since the US’s intervention in the Persian Gulf “Tanker War” in 1987.
The Islamic Republic has yet to confirm the cause of the fire or officers’ inability to contain it, but military analysts have drawn attention to alleged problems that arose during repairs to Kharg’s internal boiler.
The warship had a curious and fraught history. Contrary to Iran’s official propaganda, which claims not even barbed wire came to Iran from third countries during the Iran-Iraq War, Kharg finally arrived in Iran in 1984, in the middle of the conflict.
It had been commissioned by the Shah in the mid-1970s and built by shipbuilding company Swan Hunts in Newcastle, United Kingdom. Gholamreza Pahlavi, the Shah's brother, travelled to Britain with his wife for the ship’s launch ceremony, and it was revealed there that Kharg would be delivered to Iran in February 1979.
Originally Kharg was built to provide offshore supplies to the Iranian navy in international waters. Twelve months before the revolution, some 180 Iranian crewmembers were sent to Britain to test the ship before bringing it home. Preparations for its dispatch then got under way – just as the Shah’s government was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution.
The British government initially refused to deliver the ship to the Islamic Republic. Hossein Arian, one of the Iranian naval officers who was in Newcastle to take over Kharg, recalled in his memoirs that a minor revolt took place among the 180 would-be crewmembers.
“I can say that all of us,” he said, “without exception, had a shortwave radio to hand to listen to the news inside Iran. There were convulsions on the ship, indiscipline occurred in stages, and problems arose with the management. But in the end we were able to get the ship out to sea."
But then, with Iraq’s invasion of Iran in September 1980, the country was plunged into war. As a support and refuelling warship, Kharg and two other sister ships on which work had not been completed before 1978 did not make it to Iran until October 5, 1984.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic and the British government had reached a legal resolution to the dispute over Kharg. The new Iranian regime had cancelled a number of military procurement contracts signed during the Shah's reign, including the purchase of Chieftain tanks from Britain, but did insist on receiving the orders put in for the navy.
Less than a year after Kharg’s arrival, on July 18, 1985, Britain also delivered the Lavan amphibious cruise ship to the Islamic Republic. Lavan’s name was also derived from that of an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf, and played an important role in sea battles in the Iran-Iraq war.
During the final weeks of the conflict in May 1988, military maneuvers took place on the deck of Kharg. Ali Khamenei said on this occasion: "We must go through this critical period, and by the grace of God, the Islamic Republic will be in such a state that no other world power will even think about harming us."
Kharg served in Iran for 37 years and even survived the US’s operation against the Iranian navy, but has now sunk beneath the waves, seemingly after an accident. The ship had been in Jask, in the South Pars Special Economic Zone, for some time and was being used as accommodation by staff working on the various phases of South Pars.
Iran’s largest warship, the Makran, is an oil tanker not designed for military missions. For this reason, Kharg could have been considered the largest asset of the Iranian navy. This latest blow follows the sinking of the Damavand frigate in the Caspian Sea after it hit a breakwater at Bandar-e Anzali in January 2018, and heavy damage to the ship Konarak in an incident of friendly fire in May 2011.