South Korea moves anti-piracy unit away from Strait of Hormuz

January 18, 2021 - 22:22

TEHRAN – In a bid to calm tensions with Iran, South Korea has decided to move its anti-piracy naval unit operating near the strategic Strait of Hormuz away from the waterway, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Monday.

Citing a diplomatic source, the news agency said that the move was made to “foster a positive mood ahead of negotiations with Iran over a seized oil tanker and its sailors.”

On January 4, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) impounded the MT Hankuk Chemi carrying 20 crew members, including five South Koreans, for polluting the environment. Following the seizure, Iran said that the South Korean ship’s seizure was “a total technical issue.”

“Based on initial reports coming from local authorities, the issue is completely technical, and the vessel was led ashore upon a judicial order because the vessel had been polluting the sea,” Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement following the seizure of the ship.

South Korea sent a delegation led by First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun to Iran in an effort to resolve outstanding issues between Tehran and Seoul such as the seizure of the ship and Iran’s frozen assets in South Korean bank accounts. The delegation arrived in Tehran on January 10.

The retreat of the Cheonghae Unit came before the South Korean delegation arrived in Iran.

“To create a good atmosphere for the negotiations, the Cheonghae Unit, to which Iran has responded sensitively, was taken away (from the strait),” the diplomatic source was quoted by Yonhap as saying. “It was a decision to send a friendly signal to Iran ahead of the negotiations.”

The first round of Iran-South Korea negotiations ended in failure as the East Asian country proposed to barter a whopping $7 billion of Iran’s assets blocked in South Korean banks for ambulance vehicles and coronavirus test kits, a proposal decried by Iran as “shameless.”

During his visit to Iran, Jong-kun met with Iran’s central bank governor Abdulnasser Hemmati to discuss how to release the Iranian assets. According to Iranian media, the South Korean diplomat proposed to provide Iran with ambulances and coronavirus test kits using Iran’s assets. But Iran rejected the offer, saying that it is willing to use its money in purchasing foods and medicines. Iran also said that the Korean proposal did not include the release of all Iran’s frozen assets.

The South Korean delegation also failed to secure the release of the seized ship. In a statement on Saturday, Khatibzadeh said that legal proceedings are underway into the case of the South Korean ship.

“Legal proceedings are underway into the case of the South Korean ship seized in the Persian Gulf waters upon a judicial order due to polluting the environment,” he noted. “So, any developments in the case are subject to decisions by judicial officials.”

Following the seizure, Seoul sent the 4,400-ton Choi Young destroyer of the naval unit to the waters near the Strait of Hormuz, a move that prompted Saeed Badamchi Shabestari, Iran’s ambassador to South Korea, to expressed Iran’s displeasure over the deployment.

Iran and South Korea seem to be locked in a dispute over the seizure of the ship and the blocked assets but the two countries are willing to resolve their differences. They are exploring ways to settle the dispute.

A Foreign Ministry official in Seoul claimed that Tehran made a request to use part of its frozen funds to pay off its UN membership fees in arrears.

“It is true that (the method) has been desired by the Iranian side. We are in consultations with related government agencies of ours and the UN side to see what options we have,” the official told Yonhap on condition of anonymity, without elaborating further.

Khatibzadeh confirmed on Monday that Iran has proposed that the UN uses Iran’s assets in South Korea.

“Iran’s latest proposal in this regard was to pay this debt by having the UN use Iran’s seized assets in South Korea with the permission of the Central Bank, which is being discussed with the UN Secretariat and the necessary arrangements are being made,” said the spokesman.

“Given that the United States has encroached upon Iran’s international assets before, the Islamic Republic of Iran insists that the UN not use an American intermediary bank to receive our country’s membership fee, or that this organization guarantees the financial transfer channel,” he continued.

Khatibzadeh said Iran has always paid its UN membership fee despite restrictions imposed by U.S. sanctions.

“Despite restrictions caused by the United States’ unilateral sanctions, the Islamic Republic of Iran has, in recent years, always paid its UN membership fee using the few financial transfer channels available to it. This year, too, as the U.S. blocked channels available to transfer financial resources, Iran has been in talks with the UN Treasury since long ago in order for the world body to introduce a safe channel [for money transfer],” he explained.

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