[News analysis] Did Iran seize a S. Korean tanker because of US$7 billion in oil payments or the upcoming Biden administration?

Posted on : 2021-01-06 18:24 KST Modified on : 2021-01-06 18:24 KST
Determining Tehran’s motives is essential to resolving the crisis
Footage of Iranian military seizing a South Korean tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 4. (screenshot from Fars News Agency website)
Footage of Iranian military seizing a South Korean tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 4. (screenshot from Fars News Agency website)

A “technical measure” in response to marine pollution? A crude attempt at pressuring for the return of seized assets? Or perhaps a simple matter of being roped into a strategic conflict between Washington and Tehran?

The unprecedented move by Iran in seizing the MT Hankuk Chemi, a South Korean chemical and oil tanker, on the afternoon of Jan. 4 has pundits scratching their heads over Iran’s motives. On the same day, Iran resumed its enrichment of uranium up to 20% purity, to the alarm of the international community. Iran’s actual aims will ultimately determine how the situation is resolved.

Both South Korean and Iranian diplomatic authorities have officially stated that the vessel’s seizure was a “technical measure” in connection with marine pollution. In a regular briefing on Jan. 5, South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) Spokesperson Choi Young-sam said, “Senior officials in the Iranian Foreign Ministry have made it clear that this is simply a technical matter.”

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made it its aim to swiftly end the detention of our vessel and its crew members,” Choi added.

In a statement on the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website the day before, Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said the issue was “completely technical,” adding that “the vessel had been polluting the sea.” Iranian Ambassador to South Korea Saeed Badamchi Shabestari was summoned that afternoon to MOFA, where he confirmed that the crew members were unharmed.

Blue House Spokesperson Kang Min-seok explained, “An emergency video conference was held by the relevant government offices shortly after the incident took place, and an ongoing response is being prepared.”

South Korea immediately dispatched the ROKS Choe Yeong, a destroyer in the Navy’s Cheonghae anti-piracy unit, to the Strait of Hormuz. Seoul also plans to send a delegation headed by Koh Kyung-seok, director of MOFA’s African and Middle Eastern Affairs Bureau, to Tehran. First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun appears likely to be sent to the scene on Jan. 10 to attempt a swift resolution to the situation. If the reason really does have to do with “technical issues” as both governments have explained, the situation may be resolved harmoniously.

But other observers say the situation is more complex, suggesting that Tehran is expressing its displeasure over payments for Iranian crude oil held up in Seoul. South Korea and Iran have been engaged in won-denominated trade transactions since 2010 through a Central Bank of Iran account established in South Korea. But trade was effectively shut down after the US named Iran as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” (SDGT) in September 2019. As a result, around U$7 billion owed to Iran remains tied up in South Korean banks. Facing a severe pinch amid US economic sanctions, Iran has adamantly insisted on payment, indicating in July 2020 that it might file a case against the South Korean government with the International Court of Justice.

When asked in a Jan. 5 press conference whether the Korean crew members were being “held as hostages,” Ali Rabiei, spokesperson for the Iranian government, responded that “if there is any hostage-taking, it is Korea’s government that is holding US$7 billion which belongs to us, hostage on baseless grounds.”

Iran could be trying to gain leverage in imminent nuclear negotiations

The US and the international community have adopted a more serious view on the situation. The US and Iran are on thin ice because of the Donald Trump administration’s policies of “maximum pressure.” Jan. 3, the day before the ship’s seizure, marked the one-year anniversary of a US drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and a national hero in Iran. On Nov. 27 of last year, nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in a suspected attack by Israel’s Mossad.

Amid an outpouring of militant public opinion calling for “retaliation,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced plans to “avenge the assassination.” Soon afterwards on Dec. 20, a suspicious rocket attack took place in Baghdad, apparently targeting the US Embassy. The US subsequently sent B-52s bombers to the Persian Gulf on three occasions, while deploying the nuclear-powered submarine USS Georgia and the aircraft carrier Nimitz to keep Iran in check. Amid this heated confrontation, Iran’s seizure of the Korean vessel effectively demonstrated its ability to seal off the Strait of Hormuz, a body of water where 30% of the world’s crude oil shipments pass through.

In an even more worrying development, Iran also resumed enriching uranium up to 20% purity at the Fordo nuclear facility on the same day that the vessel was seized. (Weapons-grade uranium has a purity of 90% or higher.) While Tehran had been attempting to keep the framework of the Iran nuclear deal in place even after the Trump administration abandoned it in May 2018, its recent actions have crossed a line. Iran is clearly attempting a “strategic provocation” to pressure the US ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who declared on the anniversary of Soleimani’s death that he intends to renegotiate the deal.

A MOFA official said, “We are taking various scenarios and factors into account as we attempt to assess [Iran’s intentions].”

“It’s too early to jump to conclusions,” the official cautioned.

By Gil Yun-hyung and Jeon Jeong-yun, staff reporters

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles