Iran rules out mediation on South Korean-flagged tanker

January 24, 2021 - 20:15

TEHRAN – Iran will not accept any third party mediation on the South Korean ship seized by Iranian authorities on charges of polluting the environment, says the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry.

“We don’t accept political mediation on technical issues and we informed the South Koreans of this issue,” Saeed Khatibzadeh said in an interview with the Iranian ISNA news agency, noting that the South Korean-flagged ship was seized because it polluted the maritime environment.

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,” Khatibzadeh said in a statement following the seizure of the ship.

Tehran and Seoul are locked in a bitter dispute over Iran’s blocked assets in South Korea, with the seizure of the South Korean being the latest in a series of disagreements between the two Asian countries. Some 7 billion dollars of Iranian oil revenues have been frozen in two South Korean banks since September 2019 due to U.S. sanctions on Iran.

While Iran says that the ship was impounded for environmental issues, South Korea implied that the ship was seized in an effort to put pressure on Seoul to release Iran’s frozen money.

But Khatibzadeh denied that Iran had seized the tanker to force South Korea into releasing Iran’s blocked assets.

“So far, we have tried various means to get our assets released. The South Korean first vice foreign minister’s visit [to Iran] was in this direction,” he pointed out.

Following the seizure, South Korea sent a delegation led by its First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun to Iran. The South Korean diplomat met with several Iranian high-ranking officials including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif but 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 Abdolnasser 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. Following the negotiations, Khatibzadeh said that legal proceedings were 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.”

In his interview with ISNA, Khatibzadeh said that, during the South Korean delegation’s visit, Iranian officials asked their South Korean counterparts not to seek a political solution to a technical issue.

“During the South Korean delegation’s visit to Tehran, which took place a while ago according to a pre-planned schedule, we asked them why they seek a political solution to the issue of seizure of the Korean ship, which is a technical one,” Khatibzadeh stated.

South Korea made effort to secure the release of its tanker through political negotiations and it even asked Qatar to offer help in this regard after it failed to get the ship released. Qatar confirmed that it has received a request for help from South Korea and expressed readiness to contribute to settling the issue.

“We have received a request from the Korean government. Right now, we are working on it with Iran to find a way. They are talking to each other directly,” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said in a recent interview with Bloomberg TV. “We hope that we can help in facilitating any talks for the release of the tanker.”