Diplomatic mission to free tanker seized in Iran fails

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Diplomatic mission to free tanker seized in Iran fails

Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun, left, with Iran's Deputy for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi in a photograph released by Iran's state media. [ISLAMIC REPUBLIC NEWS AGENCY]

Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun, left, with Iran's Deputy for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi in a photograph released by Iran's state media. [ISLAMIC REPUBLIC NEWS AGENCY]

 
Korean diplomats negotiating the release of a Korean oil tanker left Iran empty-handed Tuesday after disagreeing over frozen Iranian funds and claims of pollution.
 
First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun wrapped up a three-day visit to Tehran from Sunday to Tuesday after negotiating with various Iranian leaders the release of a ship and sailors seized by Iran last week, Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday, but failed to reach any agreement.
 
Talks will continue on "swift and constructive solutions to the pending issues” based on the long-standing friendship between the two countries, the ministry said in a press release.
 
Choi protested the seizure of MT Hankuk Chemi and its 20 crewmembers in the Persian Gulf Monday by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and urged their release, the ministry said. Choi stressed that the seizure endangered the safety of Korean citizens, and asked the sailors be allowed meetings with Korean consular officials.  
 
Iranian authorities retorted that the tanker’s seizure was a “technical matter’ related to chemical and environmental pollution, accusations rejected by the Busan-based operator of the vessel, DM Shipping.  
 
A promise was made to hold a “just and fair judicial process” over the matter, as well as to guarantee humanitarian treatment and consular meetings for the sailors, according to the ministry.  
 
Choi demanded evidence that the tanker polluted Iranian seas, calling Tehran’s failure to give evidence for over a week “unacceptable.”  
 
Analysts have wondered if Tehran’s seizure of the ship is connected to efforts to free up some $7 billion of its assets frozen in Korean banks in compliance with U.S. sanctions on Iran.  
 
The Iranian government has accused Seoul of holding the funds hostage.
 
Iran’s $7 billion have been frozen in two Korean banks — the Industrial Bank of Korea and Woori Bank — since September 2019, when U.S. sanction waivers for Korea's imports of Iranian oil expired after Washington withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal the previous year.
 
Choi told Iran that because Korea’s financial system was intricately connected with that of the United States, Seoul needed U.S. cooperation in order to “maximize use” of the frozen assets.  
 
“We ask that Iran understands this reality, and actively cooperates in efforts to find ways to ensure the effective use of the [frozen] won-based funds,” Choi said, according to the ministry.
 
Seoul has been working on a way for some of those funds to be used by Iran without violating U.S. sanctions, including by obtaining a sanctions waiver from the U.S. Treasury to use the funds to purchase Covid-19 vaccines through the Covax Facility.
 
According to Korean Foreign Ministry officials however, Iran remains skeptical of such a plan due to trust issues with the United States, namely the possibility the United States may consider any remittance through its financial system as a sanctions violation and seize the assets.
 
Choi met with Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif; deputy for political affairs at its Foreign Ministry Abbas Araghchi; Central Bank of Iran Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati; Mojtaba Zolnouri, chairman of the Commission of National Security and Foreign Policy at Iran's parliament; and Deputy Justice Minister Mahmoud Hekmatnia.
 
After departing Tehran, Choi headed for Qatar on Tuesday for official talks.  
 
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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