TOKYO — Iran denied on Tuesday it had taken a South Korean tanker hostage after the ship was seized by armed guards in Persian Gulf waters, even as it complained that Seoul had frozen $7 billion of its assets.
The U.S. State Department called the ship’s seizure “part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions.”
Tehran rejected that characterization, even as it repeated its demand for Seoul to return money that has been frozen by its banks due to U.S. sanctions. It has said it wants to use some of the money to buy coronavirus vaccines.
“We’ve become used to such allegations . . . but if there is any hostage-taking, it is Korea’s government that is holding $7 billion which belongs to us hostage on baseless grounds,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters at a news conference streamed live online.
South Korea summoned Iran’s ambassador on Tuesday to demand Tehran release the Hankuk Chemi tanker and its crew of 20, and it has dispatched to the region a naval destroyer that had been stationed in the Strait of Hormuz on anti-piracy operations.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said on Tuesday she was making diplomatic efforts to secure the release of the tanker and had made contact with her counterpart in Tehran.
Seoul is also sending a “working-level” diplomatic delegation to Tehran at the “earliest possible time,” South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam said, while a planned visit by the vice foreign minister will also go ahead on Sunday.
So far, the ministry’s public statements have been muted, with the semiofficial Yonhap news agency reporting only that it had “expressed regret” over the incident to Iranian Ambassador Saeed Badamchi Shabestari.
The Iranian ambassador appeared to play down the incident. He told the Foreign Ministry that the ship had been seized for “technical” reasons linked to environmental pollution and that there was no reason to be concerned about the safety of the sailors, according to spokesman Choi.
However, the ship’s Busan-based operator, Taikun Shipping, told the Reuters news agency there was nothing to indicate before the seizure of the vessel that Iranian authorities were probing possible violations of environmental rules.
“If it really was marine pollution, as they say, the coast guard was supposed to approach the ship first,” Taikun’s management director, Lee Chun-hee, said by telephone. “But instead, armed soldiers approached the crew and said they needed to be investigated.”
“We urge Iran to release our vessel and the sailors as soon as possible,” said spokesman Huh Young. “Threats against safety and lives of the South Korean people cannot be tolerated.”
The head of Iran’s central bank says the country wants to use funds frozen in South Korea to purchase coronavirus vaccines through Covax, an international program designed to distribute the vaccines.
On Monday, Iran resumed 20 percent uranium enrichment at its sensitive Fordow nuclear facility, state media reported — a major breach from a 2015 nuclear deal struck with world powers and a move that will complicate the incoming Biden administration’s plans to restart nuclear talks.
Iran has stepped up its military activities in the Persian Gulf region in recent years as tensions with the United States and its regional allies have soared.
In the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important oil choke points, Iranian naval forces have seized or harassed oil tankers and other foreign-flagged vessels.
Tehran has consistently portrayed the moves as defensive or in line with efforts to patrol Iranian waters.
In 2019, Western governments blamed Iran for attacks targeting foreign ships with limpet mines near the Strait of Hormuz.
The explosions took place soon after the United States tightened its economic blockade, banning Iran from selling its oil on the international market.
One of the attacks targeted a Japanese tanker — the Kokuka Courageous — on the same day that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was in Tehran to meet with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
In another instance, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, just two weeks after one of its vessels was impounded by British Royal Marines off the coast of Gibraltar. The incident set off a weeks-long standoff between Iran and the West before both ships were released.