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‘Friendly’ fatalities

The bungled training exercise has raised questions about the readiness of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces amidst heightened tension with the US in the aftermath of the shooting down of the Ukranian jetliner.

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

Strange things are happening in the sea; strange things sometimes do. Monday’s maritime tragedy in the Gulf of Oman showcases a contradiction in terms ~ a “friendly fire incident” in which two Iranian vessels were involved.

The tragedy of such spurious expression of friendship must be that no fewer than 19 Iranian sailors have been killed and 15 injured, many of them severely. The clash, however unintended, happened when a new anti-ship missile which was being tested by the frigate, Jamaran, on Sunday in the Gulf of Oman hit a support ship, Konarak, setting targets close to the contested Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway through which a fifth of the world’s oil supplies are sent.

The damaged vessel, Konarak, has been docked after the ‘ friendly fire’. The beleaguered government in Tehran has let it be known that the incident was wholly accidental.

Nonetheless, it is another severe blow to the prestige of the Iranian military that is still recovering from its unintentional attack on an Ukrainian civilian aircraft departing from Tehran on 8 January, which killed all 176 people on board.

The bungled training exercise has raised questions about the readiness of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces amidst heightened tension with the US in the aftermath of the shooting down of the Ukranian jetliner.

The unintentional, has, therefore, happened twice in a span of four months. Which would suggest that this is the right juncture for the Iranian armed forces to take a call on strategic moves and exercises within the defence forces.

According to reports, the Konarak was struck “after moving a practice target to its destination and not creating enough distance between itself and the target”.

The incident happened near the port of Jask, state TV said. Initial reports spoke of only one death and two injuries, but the number of deaths rapidly escalated later on Monday.

The government in Tehran was relatively swift to admit the scale of the mistake, following criticism of the Revolutionary Guards, by senior politicians up to the level of the President, Hassan Rouhani, for initially trying to cover up the “friendly” confrontation.

There was a degree of defensiveness in the response of the navy. While it has expressed its condolences to the families of the dead, it has hastened to buttress its readiness in the choppy seas and what it described as “martyrdom-seeking spirit of the naval staff”.

The greatest impact on the Iranian military and government, crippled as it is by US sanctions, is that this is the second “high profile incident” in less than half a year when mistakes in missile targeting have resulted in significant loss of life.

At stake is the credibility of the Iranian military.