Seized South Korean tanker sails away from Iran’s waters ahead of nuclear talks

The MT Hankuk Chemi, held in Iran since January, left Bandar Abbas early on Friday.

The South Korean-flagged tanker (Tasnim News Agency/AP)
The South Korean-flagged tanker (Tasnim News Agency/AP)

A South Korean oil tanker held for months by Iran amid a dispute over billions of dollars seized by Seoul was freed and sailed away, just hours ahead of further talks between Tehran and world powers over its tattered nuclear deal. data showed the MT Hankuk Chemi leaving Bandar Abbas in the early morning hours of Friday.

South Korea’s foreign ministry said Iran released the tanker and its captain after seizing the vessel in January.

The ministry says the Hankuk Chemi left an Iranian port at around 6am local time after completing an administrative process.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, later confirmed that Iran had released the vessel.

“At the request of the owner and the Korean government, the order to release the ship was issued by the prosecutor,” Mr Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying by the state-run Irna news agency.

The ship’s owner, DM Shipping Co. Ltd of Busan, South Korea, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit in Iran (Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran/AP)
Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit in Iran (Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran/AP)

The Hankuk Chemi had been travelling from a petrochemicals facility in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates when armed Revolutionary Guard troops stormed the vessel in January and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran.

Iran had accused the MT Hankuk Chemi of polluting the waters in the crucial Strait of Hormuz.

But the seizure was widely seen as an attempt to pressure Seoul to release billions of dollars in Iranian assets tied up in South Korean banks amid heavy American sanctions on Iran. Iran released the 20-member crew in February, but continued to detain the ship and its captain while demanding that South Korea unlock frozen Iranian assets.

Iran’s foreign ministry did not acknowledge the fund dispute when announcing the ship’s release, with Khatibzadeh saying only that the captain and tanker had a clean record in the region.

But an official from South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations, said Seoul’s willingness to resolve the issue of Iranian assets tied up in South Korea “possibly had a positive influence” in Iran’s decision to release the vessel.

The official said Iran had acknowledged South Korea’s attempts to resolve the dispute as it became clear the issue was “not just about South Korea’s ability and efforts alone” and was “intertwined” with negotiations over the return to Tehran’s foundering nuclear deal.

Unfreezing the funds involves the consent of various countries including the US, which in 2018 imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.

The official said South Korea has been closely communicating with other countries over the frozen Iranian assets.

In January, the UN said Iran topped a list of countries owing money to the world body with a minimum bill of over 16 million US dollars.

If unpaid, Iran could lose its voting rights as required under the UN Charter.

The heavy water nuclear facility near Arak, Iran (Hamid Faroutan/AP)
The heavy water nuclear facility near Arak, Iran (Hamid Faroutan/AP)

“We’re expecting to make a considerable progress in terms of paying the UN dues,” an unnamed South Korean foreign ministry official was quoted as saying by the country’s Yonhap news agency.

“We have also exported some 30 million US dollars worth of medical equipment since we resumed the humanitarian trade with Iran last April.”

The development came as Iran and world powers were set to resume negotiations in Vienna on Friday to break the standoff over US sanctions against Iran and Iranian breaches of the nuclear agreement.

The 2015 nuclear accord, which then-president Donald Trump abandoned three years later, offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear programme.

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