South Korea has decided to send a delegation to Iran to seek the release of a tanker seized in Gulf waters by Iranian forces.
- The tanker was carrying cargo of more than 7,000 tonnes of ethanol
- Iranian ambassador said all crew members were safe
- China has urged calm and restraint to ease tensions
A senior diplomat will go ahead with a planned visit to Tehran amid tensions over $7 billion in Iranian funds ($215,066) frozen in Korean banks due to US sanctions.
News of the visit came as Seoul’s foreign ministry called in the Iranian ambassador to South Korea for a meeting and urged the early release of the South Korean-flagged tanker and its crew of 20.
The tanker was carrying a cargo of more than 7,000 tonnes of ethanol when it was seized on Monday local time over what Iranian media said were “pollution violations”.
An Iranian Government spokesman rejected mounting allegations that the seizure of the vessel amounted to hostage-taking, and instead pointed to South Korea’s holding of Iran’s funds as “hostage”.
“We’ve become used to such allegations … but if there is any hostage-taking, it is [South] Korea’s Government that is holding $7 billion which belongs to us hostage on baseless grounds,” spokesman Ali Rabiei said to reporters at a news conference streamed live online.
The incident comes as Iran has shown increasing signs of willingness to assert its claims in the region as US president-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office later this month, succeeding Donald Trump.
Tehran also said it had resumed 20 per cent uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow nuclear facility: The Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after Washington withdrew from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers.
When asked about the status of the ship’s crew before his meeting at the Seoul foreign ministry, Iranian ambassador Saeed Badamchi Shabestari told reporters “all of them are safe”.
Iranian state TV previously cited that a Tehran Government official said South Korea’s Vice-Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun had been scheduled to visit before the seizure of the tanker to discuss Iran’s demand that the frozen funds be released.
Mr Choi will discuss “various pending issues” between the two countries on top of the seizure, foreign ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam told a briefing in Seoul.
“In the earliest possible time, a working-level delegation led by the regional director will be dispatched to Iran to try to resolve the issue on the ground through bilateral negotiations,” Mr Choi said.
China calls for calm
Meanwhile, China has urged calm and restraint after Iran’s uranium announcement, which breaches a 2015 nuclear pact with major powers, including China.
Iran started violating the accord in 2019 in a step-by-step response to Mr Trump’s withdrawal from it the previous year and the reimposition of US sanctions, which had been lifted under the deal.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the Iran nuclear issue was at a critical juncture and was “extremely complex and sensitive”.
“China urges all sides to exercise calm and restraint, to stick to the commitments of the agreement and to refrain from taking actions that might escalate tensions, so as to make space for diplomatic efforts and a change in the situation,” she told a daily news briefing in Beijing.
“The urgent task at hand is for all sides to push the United States to return unconditionally to the agreement and remove all relevant sanctions,” Ms Hua said.
Doing so could help bring the agreement back onto “the right track”, she said.
The agreement’s main aim was to extend the “breakout” time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose, to at least a year from roughly two to three months.
It also lifted international sanctions against Iran.