A Day of Setbacks At Sea And On Land For Iran

For Iran, Wednesday was a day marked by consequential and very public setbacks both at sea and on land.

In the Gulf of Oman, the Khark (multiple spellings of this particular vessel are common: Kharg, Kharq)  an Iranian AOR (fleet-type replenishment oiler) experienced a major fire and sank. The incident occurred while the vessel, Iran’s largest, was taking part in exercises near the Strait of Hormuz. The fire broke out at 0225 hours local time on 2 June and spread quickly. As the situation worsened. Khark’s crew was evacuated from the ship with nearby vessels and Iranian military helicopters lending assistance. Khark sank at 0800 hours, six hours after the initial fire broke out. There are no reports of deaths, but two dozen crewmen suffered varying degrees of minor injuries according to Iranian media outlets.

As if this weren’t bad enough, later in the day a major oil refinery located just south of Tehran experienced a near-catastrophic fire. The blaze at the Tondgooyan Petrochemical Company’s refinery began Wednesday evening (local time) and has finally been extinguished following an intense effort by firefighters. A large plume of black smoke was visible over the Iranian capital city for much of the day. Iranian government officials have said the cause of the fire was a leak in two waste tanks at the facility that affected a nearby gas pipeline. There have been no reports of deaths or major damage beyond the refinery grounds.

Investigations are underway to determine the cause of both fires. Industrial accidents are common, especially in Iran where maintenance and repair efforts are irregular and marred by corruption. As far as Khark goes, the Iranian maritime force has been dealing with a series of fires and accidents in recent years which have had a significant effect on the nation’s maritime footprint. Despite the loss of Khark, two Iranian vessels are continuing their trek from home waters towards Venezuela. That will be discussed more later today or tomorrow.

As for the causes of Khark’s loss and the Tondgooyan refinery blaze, if they were not failures of equipment or something similar, then it’s safe to assume the Mossad had a very good Wednesday.

The Strait of Hormuz Pressure Cooker

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Tensions between the United States and Iran have been simmering for the last month. Iran’s actions over the past forty eight hours, and the subsequent US response suggest that the level of tension might be approaching the boiling point. Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged container vessel, as it transited the Strait of Hormuz has brought about a rapid US response. A security compact exists between the United States and Marshall Islands. It gives the US authority for security matters that relate to the Marshall Islands, which holds the status of an associate state of the US. On Thursday afternoon, Pentagon officials stated that US Navy warships will now be accompanying US-flagged merchant vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.

Accompaniment is not a synonym for escorting. By accompanying American-flagged vessels, elements of the US 5th Fleet will remain in the area to provide assistance if needed to the merchant and commercial vessels transiting the strait. If the 5th Fleet was tasked to actually escort the ships, American warships would convoy the merchants through the Strait of Hormuz. At first glance, the disparity of the wording may appear semantic. In the operational realm, however, the difference is more significant.

Seizing the Maersk Tigris is not the sort of spontaneous action that one would expect from Iran given the current situation in the region. It is, in all likelihood, a calculated move. One piece to a far larger plan. With the nuclear negotiations as the backdrop, the timing of this incident is rather curious. Why has Iran chosen now to provoke the United States? And why in this manner? There are many possibilities, none of them good for the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.

The seizure could be a warning to the US regarding the final approval of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Or perhaps it is a display of Iranian power and influence. A reminder of what the Iranian military is capable of in and around the straits of Hormuz. Another possibility is that the move is designed to distract US attention away from the Gulf of Aden, where an Iranian convoy was forced to turn back last week under the watchful eye of an American carrier strike group.