TEHRAN, Iran—A South Korean diplomatic delegation arrived in Iran on Jan. 10 to negotiate the release of a vessel and its crew seized by Iranian forces amid an escalating financial dispute between the countries, Iranian state-run media reported.
The South Korean-flagged tanker was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in the crucial Strait of Hormuz as Iranian officials have been pressing South Korea to release some $7 billion in assets tied up in the country’s banks as a result of U.S. sanctions. It appeared the Islamic Republic seeks to boost its leverage over Seoul ahead of South Korea’s pre-scheduled regional trip, which included a stop in Qatar.
Iran maintains the tanker and its 20-member crew were stopped in the mouth of the Persian Gulf because of the vessel’s “environmental pollution,” a claim rejected by the vessel’s owner. The crew, which includes sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar [Burma], South Korea, and Vietnam, remain in custody at the port city of Bandar Abbas, near the Strait of Hormuz.
A South Korean diplomat based in Iran met with one of the crew members, a South Korean, two weeks ago, according to South Korean Foreign Ministry Spokesman Choi Young-sam. The crew member told the diplomat he and 19 other sailors were all were safe and hadn’t suffered any mistreatment.
South Korea has requested that Iran provide evidence to back up its claim that the South Korean ship violated environmental protocols, he added.
Diplomats from Iran and Myanmar, which had 11 citizens on the ship, were meeting separately in Delhi, India, to negotiate the release of the Burmese sailors aboard, according to a semi-official ISNA news agency.
Iran’s state-run media announced First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-Kun’s arrival with a photo showing him meeting with his Iranian counterpart. It wasn’t clear how long the visit would last.
The South Korean delegation, including representatives from Seoul’s Central Bank, were set on Jan. 11 to meet with Iran’s Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati to discuss the trapped funds, semi-official Mehr news agency reported. In recent weeks, Hemmati has complained that Iran was struggling to transfer some $220 million held in South Korean banks to pay for COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX, an international program designed to distribute coronavirus vaccines to participating countries.
The seizure occurred as South Korea, in accordance with sanctions reimposed by the United States in 2018 after withdrawing from the Obama-era nuclear agreement, continues a freeze on $7 billion from Iran’s oil exports in two Korean banks. Tehran has been calling on Seoul since July 2020 to release the money.
President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” Two weeks ago, Iran ramped up uranium enrichment levels at Fordo, its key underground nuclear facility, bringing the country a technical step away from weapons-grade purity levels of 90 percent.
Iran has a record of seizing foreign ships traveling near the strategic Strait of Hormuz as a method of gaining advantage in sanctions talks.
In 2019, Iran held a British tanker for two months after the United Kingdom seized an Iranian tanker that was suspected of carrying oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.
By Amir Vahdat. The Epoch Times contributed to this report