A South Korean diplomatic delegation arrived in Iran on Sunday to negotiate the release of a vessel and its crew seized by Iranian forces amid an escalating financial dispute between the two countries, Iranian state-run media reported.
The seizure of the South Korean-flagged tanker by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in the crucial Strait of Hormuz came as Iranian officials have been pressing South Korea to release about US$7 billion in assets tied up in the country’s banks due to US sanctions.
It appeared the Islamic republic was seeking to increase its leverage over Seoul ahead of South Korea’s pre-scheduled regional trip, which included a stop in Qatar.
Photo: AFP / Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Iran says the tanker and its 20-member crew were stopped in the mouth of the Persian Gulf because of the vessel’s “environmental pollution,” a claim rejected by the vessel’s owner.
The crew, including sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, remain in custody at the port city of Bandar Abbas near the Strait of Hormuz.
Iranian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi advised South Korea to avoid politicizing the seizure of oil tanker and stay away from futile propaganda, the ministry’s Web site reported on Sunday.
Araghchi said that the vessel has been captured in the Persian Gulf and the Iranian territorial waters only because of technical considerations and environmental pollution hazards.
A South Korean diplomat based in Iran met one of the crew members, a South Korean, last week, South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Choi Young-sam said.
The crew member told the diplomat that he and 19 other sailors were all were safe and did not suffer any mistreatment.
Seoul has asked Iran to provide evidence to back up its claim that the South Korean ship violated environmental protocols, he added.
Diplomats from Iran and Myanmar, which had 11 citizens on the ship, were separately meeting in Delhi, India, to negotiate the release of the Burmese sailors aboard, the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency said.
Iran’s state-run media announced that South Korean First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong-kun’s arrival with a photo showing him meeting with his Iranian counterpart.
It was not clear how long the visit would last.
The delegation, including representatives from the South Korean central bank, were yesterday set to meet Iranian central bank Seoul’s Central Bank, were set on Monday to meet Central Bank of Iran Governor Abdolnasser Hemmati to discuss the trapped funds, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.
Hemmati has in the past few weeks complained that Iran was struggling to transfer about US$220 million held in South Korean banks to pay for COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX, an international program designed to distribute vaccines to participating countries.
“It is our natural right to be able to use this money,” Hemmati was quoted as saying on Sunday. “We hope that the American pressure will also decrease.”
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