Iran has seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf over environmental concerns, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said on Monday amid mounting tensions with Washington over Tehran’s nuclear activities.
The semi-official Tasnim news agency published photos of the vessel, identified as the Hankuk Chemi, which the outlet said was transporting 7,200 tons of ethanol before the IRGC's naval forces intercepted it at 10 a.m. local time Monday.
“The South Korean tanker was stopped in the waters of the Persian Gulf [for] environmental pollution and after neglecting warnings,” the IRGC Navy said in a statement, accusing the vessel of “violating environmental protocols repeatedly” since departing from the Saudi port of Al Jubail.
The Hankuk Chemi was then escorted to Iran’s southern port city of Bandar Abbas for “further action,” the statement said. Iranian authorities also arrested the vessel’s crew, which included members from South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry called on Monday for the tanker’s immediate release and said anti-piracy forces had been sent to the area.
“The defense ministry immediately dispatched the Cheonghae unit to waters near the Strait of Hormuz shortly after receiving a report on the situation of Iran's seizure of our commercial vessel,” the ministry said in a statement.
Ties between Tehran and Seoul are strained over $7 billion in Iranian assets currently held up in South Korean banks due to US sanctions. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said a high-ranking South Korean official will visit Tehran later this week to discuss the frozen funds, Al Jazeera reports.
“We hope this trip would be an end to the slowness of this process,” Khatibzadeh said Monday.
The Donald Trump administration reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran in 2018 after abandoning the landmark nuclear deal struck between Iran, the United States and other world powers in 2015. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if Iran returns to strict compliance.
Tehran, which insists its nuclear program is used only for peaceful purposes, has gradually breached its obligations since Washington’s exit from the deal. On Monday, Iran said it resumed 20% uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow facility near the city of Qom.
The move follows the passage of legislation in Iran’s hard-liner parliament last month that called for increasing uranium enrichment in retaliation for the suspected Israeli-orchestrated assassination of one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists in November.