At least 19 sailors were killed and 15 wounded after an Iranian missile fired during a training exercise in the Gulf of Oman struck a support vessel near its target.
The “friendly fire” accident happened on Sunday near the port of Jask, about 1,270km (790 miles) southeast of Tehran on the Gulf of Oman, a statement on the army’s website said on Monday.
“On Sunday afternoon, during an exercise by a number of the navy’s vessels in Jask and Chabahar waters, the Konarak light support vessel had an accident,” it said.
The missile struck the Konarak, a Hendijan-class support ship, which was taking part in the manoeuvres.
At least a navy sailor has been killed & several injured in a naval accident on a light Iranian vessel in the Gulf of Oman on Sunday pic.twitter.com/2del4M6ZMw
— ISNA International (@Isna_Int) May 11, 2020
State television said the Konarak had been putting targets out in the water for other ships to fire on when it was hit.
“Iran’s Moudge-class frigate Jamaran accidentally hit the Konarak ship with a missile during the exercise,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.
The bungled training exercises raised new questions about the readiness of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces amid heightened tensions with US, just months after they accidentally shot down a Ukrainian jetliner near Tehran, killing 176 passengers.
It also comes soon after a tense naval encounter between Iranian and US forces in the nearby Gulf.
Iranian media said the Konarak had been overhauled in 2018 and was able to launch sea missiles. The Dutch-made, 47-metre (155-foot) vessel had been in service since 1988.
It was not immediately clear how many crew members were on board the warship at the time of the accident.
Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported as many as 40 crew members were on board the Konarak.
Anadolu said the incident had been blamed on “human error”, citing sources in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Iran regularly holds exercises in the Gulf of Oman, which is closed to the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Gulf, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.
Iranian media rarely report on mishaps during its exercises, highlighting the severity of the incident.
Iranian vessels towed the Konarak to a nearby naval base after the strike. A photograph released by the army showed burn marks and damage to the vessel.
It appeared the sailors may have been firing Noor anti-shipmissiles during the exercise, said Reed Foster, a senior analyst at Jane’s. He said a replacement for the vessel “will likely take years to come into service” and was a blow to the navy that also has seen a destroyer sink in the Caspian Sea in January 2018.
“Perhaps the greatest impact to the Iranian military and government is that this is the second high-profile incident in less than half a year where mistakes in missile targeting have resulted in significant loss of life,” Reed said.
He added the friendly fire incident “damages the credibility” of claims by the Iranian military and government that the country can develop sophisticated defensive weapons despite international sanctions.
The US Navy’s5th Fleet, which monitors the region, did not respond to a request for comment.
The incident also comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the United States.
Relations between the two foes have deteriorated sharply since 2018 when US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from a 2015 nuclear deal between key world powers and Iran.
Washington then reimposed sanctions on Tehran, crippling its economy.
The animosity deepened in early January when the US assassinated top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq.
Iran retaliated on January 8 by firing missiles at bases in Iraq where US troops were stationed.
On the same day, Iran’s armed forces shot down a Kyiv-bound Boeing 737 passenger jet over Tehran, killing all 176 people on board.
The military admitted to the “catastrophic error”, saying it came as Iran’s air defences were on high alert after firing the barrage of missiles at American targets in Iraq.
In April, the US accused Iran of conducting “dangerous and harassing” maneouvres near American warships in the northern Gulf. Iran also had been suspected of briefly seizing a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker just before that.
Analysts have warned regional tensions likely will increase again. This week also marks the anniversary of attacks on oil tankers near the strait that the US blamed on Iran.