A diplomatic mess

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A diplomatic mess

The Iranian government is playing fast and loose with the facts after its Revolutionary Guard illegitimately detained the South Korean oil tanker MT Hankuk Chemi in January. On Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Korea had agreed to return Iran’s assets frozen in Korea. “That’s a sign that we will win a war with the enemy,” he said. A spokesman for the Iranian government backed that statement up with an announcement that Iran will soon retrieve $1 billion out of the $7 billion frozen in Korean banks.

But those announcements contradicted the Korean government’s position. The foreign minister said the country must consult with the United States, although he admitted that both sides took a step closer to resolution of the issue. The ministry stated that no further progress has been made in regards to its earlier proposal that Teheran release the ship in return for using the frozen funds to pay Iran’s delayed contributions to the United Nations and buy vaccines to fight the pandemic. And yet, the Iranian president came forward and spoke as if Seoul had agreed to return the frozen asset to Teheran. That’s a serious diplomatic discourtesy. Iran has been engaging in a fast and loose media campaign since Jan. 4, when it seized the tanker.

Teheran’s move is apparently aimed at having the upper hand in returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Jcpoa) signed by Iran, Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany and the United States in July 2015. The Donald Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from it in May 2018. Teheran also wants to appease its hard-liners ahead of a presidential election in June.

Nevertheless, the act of announcing a deal had been struck with Seoul constitutes a violation of diplomatic rules. Iran must not forget that the money — profits from its petroleum sales to Korea — was frozen due to U.S. sanctions and that lifting the sanctions for even humanitarian purposes requires consent from the United States.

It is questionable if Seoul had proper consultations with Washington while negotiating with Teheran. Shortly after the announcement by Iran, the U.S. State Department stressed that Washington was consulting with Seoul on the issue and that Korea’s foreign minister made it clear that the freeze will only be lifted after consultations with Washington. We wonder if our Foreign Ministry hurriedly — and unwisely — proposed a lifting of the freeze to Iran.

The episode suggests a lapse in Seoul’s diplomacy. If the government can only focus on improving relations with North Korea, it cannot meet the important demand for capable diplomacy with other countries.
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