An Iranian naval vessel was hit by a missile fired from another ship during a military exercise in the Sea of Oman on Sunday, an apparent accident that left at least 19 people dead, Iran's navy said.
Official details of the incident were scant, and the navy said 15 other people were injured. But four people with knowledge of the incident said the ship, identified as the missile boat Konarak, was hit and sunk by a missile from the frigate Jamaran by mistake. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal from Iranian officials.
"The scope of the incident is under investigation by experts," Iran's Navy said.
Iran's military has come under intense global scrutiny since another mistake with missiles: In January, Iran's Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukrainian Airlines passenger plane with two missiles, killing 176 onboard. It blamed the incident on human error on a night that it launched ballistic missiles at a U.S. military base in Iraq in retaliation for the assassination of a top general.
Iran has also been battling a severe outbreak of the coronavirus, leaving trust between government and public at an all-time low. Iranians have blamed the government for not enforcing an early lockdown to battle the virus and not being transparent about the number of people infected.
The reports of the latest mishap drew criticism of the government on social media.
"Firing at your own targets, whether military or civil, in such a short space of time is not human error. It's a catastrophic failure of management and command," tweeted Maziar Khosravi, a journalist aligned with reformist politicians.
The incident occurred Sunday afternoon in the Sea of Oman, near the Iranian port city of Jask. Iran routinely conducts military exercises in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman with a dual purpose: testing new domestically produced equipment and showcasing its military might as tensions between Washington and Tehran escalate and the threat of military conflict looms.
Last month, President Donald Trump tweeted that he had instructed the U.S. Navy to shoot at Iranian boats if they harassed American ships in the Persian Gulf. Iran threatened to retaliate if it came under attack.
Since Trump's tweet, Iran has placed its air defense forces on highest alert and moved them to positions along its southern shores of the Persian Gulf, according to an Iranian military strategist.
It was not immediately clear whether human error or faulty equipment was involved in Sunday's accident.
The bodies of the dead were taken to a hospital in the southern seaport city of Chahbahar, and a search and rescue mission was underway to find at least 20 other crew members still missing, people familiar with the incident said.
"This accident is very sad for all of us," tweeted Seyed Mohamad Razavi, a prominent media adviser to conservative politicians, including Mohamad Baqer Ghalibaf, the incoming speaker of Parliament and a former Revolutionary Guard commander.
The Konarak was hit as it was guiding a target out to sea to help the Jamaran test-fire a missile, according to Razavi and a Telegram channel affiliated with the Guard.
The Konarak had not sufficiently distanced itself from the target when the missile was fired. Instead of hitting the target, the missile slammed into the tail of the Konarak, according to the Telegram channel, called SepahCybery, and Razavi.
The Jamaran is considered one of the prides of Iran's fleet, and a triumph of homegrown naval technology. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, inaugurated the Jamaran in 2010 in an unusual appearance onboard the ship.
Military experts said Sunday's episode was a significant setback for Iran's navy and its ambitions to project itself as a power player in the Persian Gulf and beyond. Together with the downing of the Ukrainian airliner, it undermines an effort by Iran to present its military as a force capable of countering the United States and its regional allies, they said.
"This really showed that the situation with Iran is still dangerous, because accidents and miscalculations can happen," said Fabian Hinz, an expert on Iran's military at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif. "It doesn't give you confidence about the stability of the Persian Gulf."
A Section on 05/12/2020