SEOUL – South Korea is sending a delegation to Iran today to request the release of a tanker that has been seized by Iranian forces in Gulf waters. A senior diplomat is planning a scheduled visit to Tehran on Sunday amid tensions of over $ 7 billion. Iranian funds in Korean banks are frozen due to US sanctions.
News of the visits came when the Seoul Foreign Ministry called the Iranian ambassador to South Korea for a meeting and requested the early release of the South Korean flagged tanker and its 20-strong crew. It was carrying a cargo of more than 7,000 tons of ethanol when it was seized on Monday because of Iranian media related to pollution violations.
The incident comes as Iran shows increasing signs of willingness to assert its claims in the region as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office as Donald Trump’s successor later this month.
On Monday, Tehran also announced that uranium enrichment in its underground nuclear power plant in Fordow had resumed by 20 percent: The Trump administration again imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after Washington withdrew from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers.
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When asked about the status of the ship’s crew prior to his meeting at the Seoul Foreign Office, Iranian Ambassador Saeed Badamchi Shabestari told reporters: “Everyone is safe.”
Iranian state television previously quoted a government official from Tehran as saying that South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun was visiting before the Hankuk Chemi tanker was seized to discuss Iran’s request to release the frozen funds.
Vice Minister Choi will discuss “various pending issues” between the two countries in addition to the seizure, Foreign Ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam said in Seoul on Tuesday.
“A working-level delegation led by the regional director will be sent to Iran at the earliest opportunity to try to resolve the problem on the ground through bilateral negotiations,” said Choi.
Busan-based ship operator Taikun Shipping Co. Ltd. Reuters told Reuters that prior to the seizure of the ship, there was nothing to indicate that the Iranian authorities are investigating possible violations of environmental regulations.
“If it really was marine pollution like her [Iranian media] Let’s say the Coast Guard should approach the ship first, “Taikun’s managing director Lee Chun-hee said over the phone.” Instead, armed soldiers approached the crew and said they needed to be investigated. “
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Tuesday that she was making diplomatic efforts to secure the tanker’s release and that she had contacted her counterpart in Tehran, the Yonhap news agency reported.
Tilak Doshi, a senior fellow at National University Singapore’s Middle East Institute, said the incident was an example of Iran’s willingness to flex its muscles as Joe Biden prepares for office and that the frozen assets are likely in talks with Seoul would be upset.
“Undoubtedly, when negotiating the release of the tanker and its crew, the release of funds by South Korea will be the main demand on the Iranian side,” he said.
Last Sunday, the Tehran Times newspaper reported that Iran was hoping to negotiate an agreement to use the frozen funds to “barter” vaccine doses in the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic and other goods.
According to Yonhap, a State Department official said the Iranian government has tried to secure vaccines through the global COVAX initiative, which is supported by the World Health Organization. Tehran has held talks with the ministry and the US Treasury to pay for the cans with South Korean won, Yonhap said, citing a source at the ministry.