Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called on Iranian army commanders to probe a missile strike that accidentally killed 19 service members during naval drills in the country’s southeast last week. In his statement, Khamenei ordered the officials to “shed light” on the incident, identify the “possible culprits” and take necessary measures to avoid any future recurrence of such a tragedy, which he lamented as “bitter and painful.”
On May 12, fellow comrades bid farewell to the sailors during a state funeral near the port city of Chabahar. Based on the initial explanation from navy commanders, the missile was fired by mistake during one of the many routine exercises Iran holds in the Gulf of Oman, close to the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which is the maritime passageway for 20% of the world’s oil traffic.
Khamenei’s statement, which came out two days after the incident, struck an open similarity in wording and tone with another message he released in January after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) admitted to have mistakenly shot down a Ukraine International Airlines flight outside the capital, Tehran, killing all 176 passengers on board, most of them of Iranian origin.
Despite Khamenei’s call and pledges from Iranian authorities for justice, no individual has been put to trial in connection with the tragedy that placed Tehran under international spotlight for several weeks. Diplomatic pressure, particularly from Canada and Ukraine, has yet to convince the Islamic Republic to let loose of the two black boxes it recovered from the crash site.
Following the naval missile strike, Iranian media outlets and political commentators have been advising the authorities against adhering to the same pattern that characterized the fallout of the Ukrainian plane crash. It took the IRGC three days of denial and cover-up before publicly coming clean about the attack. The Reformist daily Mardomsalari has now urged transparency and a speedy investigation into the naval tragedy, which “was reminiscent of the Ukrainian jetliner.”
A local military prosecutor dealing with the case has urged everyone to refrain from “speculations” until the results of the official probe are out. However, the incident continues to draw reactions from much of the Iranian public, who are appalled by the loss of “heroes at sea” and angered by the officials’ perceived negligence, which every now and then claims multiple innocent lives. “After repeated occurrences, mistakes [are no longer mistakes, rather they] are called trends,” tweeted pro-reform pundit Hossein Dehbashi.
The strike also immediately stirred up debates on old rivalries between Iran’s regular military known as Artesh and the IRGC, which has been acting as a parallel but is a more powerful armed organization. One such argument focused on the possibility that the missile launch could have been an IRGC job aimed at undermining the regular army, which is largely known as a more patriotic and committed entity. Over the years, nevertheless, the army has been increasingly sidelined, watching the rival IRGC receive the lion’s share in the state defense budget.
Yet claims that the missiles were indeed fired from IRGC boats were dismissed by army spokesman Brig. Gen. Shahin Taghi Khani as “baseless and irrelevant rumors” disseminated by “hostile media,” a moniker Iranian officials typically use in reference to foreign-based opposition news networks, which Tehran alleges are funded by “enemies” to overthrow the Islamic Republic. “They have gone out of their ways to drive a wedge between the army and the IRGC,” Taghi Khani said. “But our people and media are vigilant enough to disregard those rumors,” the spokesman concluded.