Iran refinery ablaze and its navy’s largest ship sinks in day of suspicious mishaps

Crew of ship safely disembarks, and no injuries reported in refinery fire

Borzou Daragahi,Samuel Osborne
Wednesday 02 June 2021 19:21 BST
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Fire breaks out at Tehran oil refinery

Massive plumes of thick, poisonous black smoke rose over Tehran on Wednesday after a refinery located outside the city caught fire in the latest in a series of mysterious industrial accidents that have struck Iran.

Hours earlier, Iran’s largest naval warship caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Oman, news agencies reported. The entire crew safely disembarked from the naval support and training ship Kharg, but “all efforts to save the vessel were unsuccessful and it sank”, one report said.

The fire at the Tondguyan refinery south of the Iranian capital could be seen from residential areas of Tehran. Videos posted to the internet showed several fires blazing at the site.

Firefighters struggled to put out the blaze, while ambulances were mobilised and hospital beds prepared to treat any injured. According to Iranian news outlets, the fire was spreading late Wednesday, burning up fuel in storage facilities.

The 1960s-built facility is one of Iran’s largest oil refineries.

Severe damage to it could further strain the Iranian economy, which has already been crippled by United States sanctions and decades of mismanagement by the country’s regime.

An official told state television that the fire began at an emergency liquified gas line leading to the refinery. Another official was quoted as saying the inferno was not caused by sabotage, but there was no official explanation for the cause of the original fire.

Iranian officials also offered no explanation for the fire aboard the Kharg. However, it comes after a series of mysterious explosions that began in 2019 on ships in the Gulf of Oman. The US Navy later accused Iran of targeting the ships with limpet mines – timed explosives typically attached by divers to a vessel’s hull.

Iran denied targeting the vessels, though US Navy footage showed members of the Revolutionary Guard removing one unexploded limpet mine from a vessel. The incidents came at a time of heightened tensions between the US and Iran, after the then president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal Tehran had agreed with powerful nations.

Israel has also been suspected in attacks on Iranian ships and on industrial sites linked to Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The blaze aboard the Kharg began in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and although firefighters tried to control it, the vessel sank near the Iranian port of Jask, some 1,270km southeast of Tehran near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.

Photos on Iranian social media showed sailors wearing life jackets evacuating the vessel as a fire burned behind them.

State TV referred to the Kharg as a “training ship”, with one source publishing a video of thick, black smoke rising from the ship on Wednesday morning.

Smoke rises from Iran’s navy support ship ‘Kharg’ in the Gulf of Oman
Smoke rises from Iran’s navy support ship ‘Kharg’ in the Gulf of Oman (Asriran.com via AP)

Satellite photos from Planet Labs Inc showed the Kharg off to the west of Jask on Tuesday, with pictures from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks fires from space, detecting a blaze at the site starting just before the time of the fire as reported by other sources.

The Kharg serves as one of a few vessels in the Iranian navy capable of providing replenishment at sea for its other ships. It can also lift heavy cargo and serve as a launch point for helicopters.

The warship, built in Britain and launched in 1977, entered the Iranian navy in 1984 after lengthy negotiations following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran’s navy typically handles patrols in the Gulf of Oman and the wider seas, while the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard operates in the shallower waters of the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. In recent months, however, its navy has launched a slightly larger commercial tanker called the Makran, which has been converted to serve a similar function to the Kharg.

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 the port of Jask, killing 19 sailors and wounding 15. And in 2018, an Iranian navy destroyer sank in the Caspian Sea.

Additional reporting by agencies

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