[News analysis] Iran may have seized a S. Korean tanker to negotiate a vaccine deal

Posted on : 2021-01-07 17:59 KST Modified on : 2021-01-07 17:59 KST
Hampered by sanctions, Tehran may demand that Seoul purchase COVID-19 vaccines on its behalf
A South Korean tanker that was seized by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 4. (Yonhap News)
A South Korean tanker that was seized by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz on Jan. 4. (Yonhap News)

When Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker, it may have been hoping to arrange a proxy purchase of COVID-19 vaccines.

Iran has repeatedly said the seizure is a “completely technical matter” pertaining to maritime pollution and taken the hardline stance that there’s “no need” for any visit by South Korean officials.

But the peculiar timing of the seizure and the harsh character of the action make it hard to take Iran’s claims at face value. Furthermore, Iranian media reports claiming that Iran “wants to barter for vaccines with South Korea” are likely to raise more questions for the Korean government.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement posted to the ministry’s website on Jan. 6 that Iran wants the South Korean government to deal with this technical issue in a logical and responsible manner.

He also reiterated that the issue concerning the South Korean vessel was a “completely technical one.”

“As the authority in charge of such issues, the [Iranian] Ports and Maritime Organization is professionally trying to offer the necessary assistance to the ship and its crew,” he added.

Khatibzadeh shared a chilly response to the South Korea Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)’s announcement the day before that First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kyun would be visiting Iran on Jan. 10.

“A trip by South Korea’s acting foreign minister was already on the agenda, and it was made public accordingly, and this visit will take place in the near future, but it has nothing to do with the issue [of the seized tanker],” he said.

“The two countries have not reached any agreement on diplomatic visits because this issue is running its defined legal course within a technical framework, and there is no need for a diplomatic visit,” he added.

But a South Korean government official’s remarked on Jan. 5 that the Iranian government had “attempted to obtain [COVID-19] vaccines through the COVAX Facility [an international joint purchasing network for vaccines], but no decision could be made due to concerns about the US freezing assets during the purchasing process.”

On Jan. 3, an Iranian official was quoted in the English-language Tehran Times as saying that Iran hoped to “barter” with South Korea for the vaccine, suggesting that Tehran may demand that Seoul purchase vaccines on its behalf. In the article, Hossein Tanhaei, head of the South Korea-Iran Joint Chamber of Commerce, indicated plans to negotiate with South Korea to exchange roughly US$8 billion in frozen payments for Iranian oil “with a variety of goods including COVID-19 vaccine.”

“[N]ow we should wait and see that [sic] how much the Koreans are willing to cooperate for bartering the commodities specified in our list,” Tanhaei was quoted as saying.

MOFA has repeatedly stated its intention of swiftly resolving the situation through Choi’s Iran visit and other measures.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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

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