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Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have seized a South Korean vessel “for polluting the Persian Gulf with chemicals”, amid rising tensions between Iran and the US during the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Iranian news agencies published photos showing Guards speed boats escorting the tanker MT Hankuk Chemi and said the vessel’s crew members, including nationals of South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar, had been detained. The tanker is being held at Iran’s Bandar Abbas port city.
South Korea’s foreign ministry demanded the vessel’s immediate release and said South Korean forces stationed in the Strait of Hormuz had been dispatched to the area.
The incident came before an expected visit by South Korea’s deputy foreign minister to Tehran, and against the backdrop of rising tensions between Iran and the Trump administration.
On Monday Iran resumed enriching uranium to up to 20% purity, in a significant breach of the 2015 nuclear accord, reducing the time it would take to reach weapons-grade level.
The move, which Iran told the UN nuclear watchdog about last week, was one of many mentioned in a law passed by Iran’s parliament last month in response to the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.
Iran started violating the accord in 2019 in retaliation for Washington’s withdrawal from the agreement and the reimposition of US sanctions against Tehran. The enrichment is taking place at the Fordow site, which was built inside a mountain, apparently to protect it from aerial bombardment. The 2015 deal does not allow enrichment there.
Iran, which has a history of seizing ships if the national flag carrier has a related dispute with Tehran, is furious that South Korea has for months refused to release billions of dollars of Iranian oil-export revenue that it says it needs to purchase anti-coronavirus medicines including possible vaccines.
In June Iran’s Central Bank said the actions of banks in South Korea were preventing Iran from using the money to buy foods and medicines - trade that is exempt from US sanctions.
Iran announced in June that it had received medicines valued at $500,000 from South Korea after two years of negotiations. At the time, Iran’s foreign ministry said the deal was approved by Washington. It also said South Korea was about $7bn in arrears for oil exported before the Trump administration last year reimposed penalties on Iran’s crude sales. South Korea has always insisted it is working within the sanctions regime imposed by the US, and was working to secure exemptions for humanitarian supplies.
Sunday marked the first anniversary of a US drone strike that killed the top general Qassem Suleimani, and Washington has apparently been braced for possible retaliation. Both sides are watching the other warily in the final days of the Trump administration.
After the US stepped up military deployments and threatening language, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, accused it on New Year’s Eve of trying to set up a “pretext for war”.
On Sunday the US reversed a decision to bring an aircraft carrier home from the Persian Gulf, with the Pentagon saying that owing to “recent threats” by Iran the USS Nimitz would stay in position. The original plan to leave the region was intended to be a de-escalatory signal to Iran. The US has already sent extra B52 bombers across the area.
The European Union had warned that 20% enrichment would mark “a serious deviation” from the commitments made by Iran in the nuclear deal signed in 2015. There will also be fears in Europe that Iran’s brinkmanship could provoke Israel into a military strike.
The Iran nuclear deal’s main aim was to extend the time needed to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from approximately two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.
US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons programme that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever having had one.
The decision to increase the level of enriched uranium is probably directed more at strengthening Tehran’s negotiating hand with the incoming Biden administration.
Joe Biden, who takes office on 20 January, has signalled that Washington would rejoin the so-called joint comprehensive plan of action aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.
The deal has been unravelling since Donald Trump withdrew from it in May 2018 and imposed crippling economic sanctions on Tehran.
Reuters contributed to this report