South Korean delegation heads to Iran over seized ship

Iranian forces detained the 20-member crew of a South Korean-flagged oil tanker that Iran's IRGC said had violated environmental protocols.

al-monitor A picture obtained by AFP from the Iranian news agency Tasnim on Jan. 4, 2021, shows the South Korean-flagged tanker being escorted by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps after being seized in the Gulf.  Photo by TASNIM NEWS/AFP via Getty Images.

Jan 6, 2021

A South Korean delegation will soon depart for Iran to demand the release of a ship seized by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf earlier this week, Yonhap reported on Wednesday.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) cited environmental concerns when it seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf on Monday. The MT Hankuk Chemi was transporting 7,200 tons of ethanol when it departed from the Saudi port of Al Jubail bound for Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.  

In a statement, the IRGC’s navy said the vessel had polluted the waters and repeatedly violated environmental protocols. The ship’s owner called the allegations “absurd.”

The MT Hankuk Chemi was then escorted to Iran’s southern port city of Bandar Abbas for “further action” and Iranian authorities arrested the ship’s 20-member crew. South Korea responded by dispatching a naval destroyer to the area and summoning the Iranian ambassador to Seoul. The South Korean Foreign Ministry has also sent a consular official based in Iran to Bandar Abbas to try to meet with the arrested crew members, Yonhap reports.

Ties between the two countries were already strained over $7 billion in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks due to US sanctions. Iran, which needs the funds to prop up its sanctions-battered economy, denies seizing the MT Hankuk Chemi as leverage in the dispute. 

“If anyone is a hostage-taker it’s South Korea’s government, which has taken hostage more than $7 billion of our revenues for no reason," government spokesperson Ali Rabiei said during a virtual news conference.

The tanker’s seizure comes weeks before the swearing in of US President-elect Joe Biden, who has promised to rejoin the landmark nuclear deal if Iran returns to strict compliance. The administration of President Donald Trump reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran in 2018 after withdrawing from the deal, and Tehran has gradually breached its nuclear obligations as a result. 

The US State Department called on Iran to immediately release the ship, describing its taking as “part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions.”

On Tuesday the Trump administration unveiled a new round of sanctions on Iran, taking aim at the country’s metals sector. Among those blacklisted were a China-based supplier of graphite electrodes, 12 Iranian steel producers and three foreign-based sales agents of a major Iranian metals and mining holding company.

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