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International relations

Iran sends warning to US friends with South Korea tanker seizure

Seoul weighs using frozen assets to purchase vaccines for Tehran

The South Korean-flagged Hankuk Chemi was seized Jan. 4 in waters off Oman with 20 crew members on board.   © IRGC/WANA via Reuters

DUBAI/SEOUL -- Tensions between Iran and South Korea are surging after the Revolutionary Guard took control of a South Korean-flagged tanker, a move some see as a warning to other countries that side too closely with the U.S. on sanctions against Tehran.

Iranian forces seized the Hankuk Chemi in waters off Oman on Monday, officially citing pollution concerns. But speculation suggests the seizure is an attempt by Tehran to regain control of frozen financial assets in South Korea and prevent other U.S. allies that maintain economic ties to Iran -- like Japan -- from cutting the cord.

Tehran and Seoul once enjoyed strong economic ties, with big South Korean companies investing in the Persian Gulf nation and Iran exporting large amounts of oil, mainly condensate, to South Korea. But increasing pressure on Iran by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has driven a wedge between the countries.

In light of American sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, Seoul froze the bank's accounts at two South Korean financial institutions used to make payments for Iranian exports. Many think Iran seized the chemical tanker and its crew essentially as hostages to restore access to these funds.

An Iranian spokesperson rejected such speculation Tuesday. "If there is any hostage-taking, it is Korea's government that is holding $7 billion which belongs to us on baseless grounds," he said, according to Reuters.

The two sides have been in talks on using the frozen assets to buy coronavirus vaccines for Iran through COVAX, a global mechanism for vaccine procurement backed by the World Health Organization, according to South Korea's Foreign Ministry. But Iran remains hesitant, concerned that the U.S. could seize the assets despite granting an exemption to sanctions when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines.

Washington is increasingly concerned by Iran's provocations in the Middle East. The country recently resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity.

The U.S. State Department urged Iran to immediately release the South Korean tanker, Reuters reported. The Defense Department on Sunday said the nuclear carrier USS Nimitz will remain in the Middle East "due to the recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials," reversing a plan to bring the vessel home announced just days prior.

President-elect Joe Biden plans to restore the 2015 multilateral deal blocking Iran's nuclear program, from which the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew. Still, Washington is not expected to lift all sanctions on Iran at once, but rather in stages.

Many in the U.S. suspect Iran is fueling tensions in the Middle East to draw out a compromise from the incoming Biden administration. Iran could use crude exports as another diplomatic tool once the embargo is lifted.

Seoul is working to secure the return of the ship and its crew. Five of the crew's 20 members are South Korean, according to the country's Foreign Ministry. The ministry and the South Korean Embassy in Tehran have confirmed they are safe, and urged Iran to release them as soon as possible.

Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun will seek a diplomatic solution during a trip to Iran, which had been planned prior to the incident and will start Sunday. South Korea's navy has sent a unit to protect South Korean vessels sailing near Iran.

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