DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A South Korean oil tanker detained for months by Iran amid a dispute over billions of dollars seized by Seoul was freed and set off on Friday morning, hours before the pursuit talks between Tehran and world powers over its tattered nuclear deal.
Data from MarineTraffic.com showed that MT Hankuk Chemi was leaving Bandar Abbas early in the morning. As of Friday afternoon, he was off the east coast of the United Arab Emirates, having safely crossed the Strait of Hormuz.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said Iran released the tanker and its captain after seizing the vessel in January. The ministry said the Hankuk Chemi left an Iranian port around 6 a.m. local time after completing an administrative process.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh later confirmed that Iran released the ship.
“At the request of the owner and the Korean government, the order to release the vessel was issued by the prosecutor,” Khatibzadeh said, quoted by the official IRNA news agency.
The shipowner, DM Shipping Co. Ltd. from Busan, South Korea, could not be reached for comment.
The Hankuk Chemi had traveled from a petrochemical facility in Jubail, Saudi Arabia to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates when Revolutionary Guard troops stormed the ship in January and forced the ship to change course and to visit Iran.
Iran had accused the ship of polluting the waters of the crucial Strait of Hormuz. But the seizure was widely seen as an attempt to pressure Seoul to release some $ 7 billion in Iranian assets tied up in South Korean banks amid heavy US sanctions against Iran. Iran released the 20-member crew in February, but continued to detain the ship and its captain while demanding that South Korea release frozen Iranian assets.
Iran’s foreign ministry did not acknowledge the dispute over the fund when it announced the vessel’s release, with Khatibzadeh only claiming that the captain and tanker had an impeccable record in the region.
But a South Korean Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity under the regulations, said Seoul’s willingness to resolve the problem of Iranian assets tied up in South Korea “may have a positive influence “on Iran’s decision to release the ship.
The official said Iran recognized South Korea’s attempts to resolve the dispute, as it became clear that the issue was not just about South Korea’s ability and efforts alone “and was” closely related. “to negotiations on the return to the Tehran nuclear deal.
Releasing the funds involves the consent of various countries, including the United States, which in 2018 imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors. The official said South Korea had communicated closely with other countries over the frozen assets.
Iran later announced that it expected South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun to travel to Tehran for a two-day visit starting on Sunday. Yonhap said the trip would be the first visit by a South Korean prime minister to Iran in 44 years – before the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. Chung had previously visited Iran in August 2017 as chairman of the National Assembly.
The development came as Iran and world powers were set to resume negotiations in Vienna on Friday to break the deadlock on US sanctions against Iran and Iranian violations of the nuclear deal. The 2015 nuclear deal, which then-President Donald Trump abandoned three years later, offered sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.
Information for this article was provided by Kim Tong-hyung and Amir Vahdat of the Associated Press.
FILE – In this January 4, 2021 file photo released by the Tasnim News Agency, an oil tanker seized under the South Korean flag is escorted by Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats across the Persian Gulf. The South Korean oil tanker held for months by Iran amid a dispute over billions of dollars held in Seoul left Iran early on Friday, April 9, 2021 (Tasnim News Agency via AP, file)