Iran Releases Detained South Korean Tanker
Iran released the South Korea tanker and its crew that it had been detaining for the past three months while it investigated what it said were potential environmental violations in Iranian waters. Iran previously released the crewmembers but was continuing to detain the captain and 12 crew had remained aboard the vessel for maintenance and to prepare it to sail.
The 17,427 dwt tanker Hankuk Chemi left the port near Bandar Abbas on the southern coast of Iran at around 6 a.m. local time according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The South Korean Foreign Ministry later confirmed the release of the vessel and reported that the captain and crew were in good health. The Hankuk Chemi has arrived in the Fujairah anchorage in the United Arab Emirates.
“The ship's release was decided after the Iranian authorities and the vessel's Korean operator reached a settlement,” Iran’s Mehr News Agency reported. The Wall Street Journal is citing unnamed Western officials reporting that the South Koreans paid $100,000 for the release of the tanker. Tehran had never begun any legal proceedings against the ship, according to the Iranians.
The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps seized the tanker and its 20 crew members on January 4, saying the ship violated environmental rules. The armed soldiers stormed the vessel and took control ordering the captain to sail the ship into the port at Bandar Abbas. South Korea contented that the ship was in international waters at the time and never violated any environmental regulations.
International speculation quickly centered on a dispute between Iran and South Korea over $7 billion frozen in South Korean banks due to sanctions from the U.S. related to business dealings with Iran. Iran initially rebuffed South Korean diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. While neither side linked the tanker to the frozen funds, reports say that South Korea and Iran have been in talks over the funds and efforts to release the funds or use them for the benefit of Iran.
The Iranian news agency is suggesting that the funds could be used to supply humanitarian aid to the country or that the funds might be used in part to pay Iran's UN dues which are in arrears the country admits due to sanctions that restrict its access to the international financial markets.
South Korean officials told the Yonhap news agency that the funds and the tanker were two separate issues but that progress was being made seeking a resolution to the frozen funds. South Korea also highlighted that it assisted in the export of $30 million worth of medical equipment to Iran.
The South Korean tanker was one of several recent incidents in the Persian Gulf region linked to Iran. There have been several reports of mine attacks on tankers in the region. Two Israeli-owned ships also were struck by missiles linked to Iranian factions. In both of those incidents, the crews were uninjured and the ships suffered only minor damage. Security analysts, however, have warned that the potential remains high for additional incidents in the region.