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Iran Says Looming South Korean Visit Unrelated To Impounded Tanker

Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, on Tuesday [January 5] denied that a South Korean delegation visiting Tehran was linked to Iran’s seizure of a Korean-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf on Monday on grounds of environmental violations. Khatibzadeh said the visit of South Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun had been planned before the vessel was impounded. Khatibzadeh insisted there were no plans for additional diplomacy.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Choi Jong-kun was scheduled to visit Tehran on Sunday [January 10] to discuss a range of issues, while Seoul also announced it had established a team to negotiate the release of the tanker and its 20 crew. The MT Hankuk Chemi, which carried 7,200 tons of ethanol, was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Navy on Monday near The Greater Tunb island in the eastern Persian Gulf due to alleged infringements of maritime environmental protocols. The tanker is held at Iran’s southern port city of Bandar Abbas.

Khatibzadeh said the issue of the tanker was “running within a technical framework and a clear legal course” and there was no need for a specific diplomatic initiative. He criticized South Korea’s approach as “inexplicable and wrong” and urged Seoul to adopt “more reasonable and responsible behavior.”

Iran and South Korea have been seeking for months a way to release billions of dollars of Iranian funds frozen due to fears in Korea of third-party US sanctions that can be levied on any entity dealing with Iran.

On Tuesday Ali Rabiei, the Iranian government spokesman, denied the seizure of the tanker was designed to put pressure on Seoul to release Iran’s funds, owed mainly for oil. “If anybody is to be called a hostage taker, it is the South Korean government that has taken our more than $7 billion hostage on baseless grounds,” he told his weekly press briefing.

In a report to parliament, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said it was reviewing whether the ship violated international law by polluting the water, as claimed by Tehran, and whether Iran acted illegally during the boarding and seizure process. In addition to diplomatic efforts, Korea announced it had deployed an anti-piracy unit to the Strait of Hormuz.

Japan, another former buyer of Iranian oil that Khatibzadeh said in October owed Tehran money, has also expressed wariness over tension in the Persian Gulf. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has warned shipping companies to be very cautious in the area.

In June 2019 a Japanese tanker, the Kokuka Courageous, was targeted by unknown attackers in international waters near the Strait of Hormuz on the same day that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran for a state visit including a meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei where he offered to mediate between Tehran and Washington.


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