Iranian authorities released the South Korean ship Hankuk Chemi and its captain, the South Korean Foreign Ministry announced on Friday. The oil tanker had been seized by Iranian forces in January near the Strait of Hormuz, as the vessel was traveling from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates.
"The captain and sailors are in good health and it's been confirmed the ship and its cargoes had no problems," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "The ship departed Iran after completing administrative procedures."
Tehran had announced it would release the ship earlier in the week, but Seoul previously said the multinational crew of more than 20 sailors was still on board the vessel. Iranian leaders have claimed they stopped the ship because of "environmental pollution," but the vessel's owners have rejected these accusations.
Was the ship's seizure an extortion attempt by Iran?
The seizure of the ship may be an extortion attempt by Tehran to pressure Seoul into releasing billions of dollars in South Korean banks that are frozen due to US sanctions. Iranian government spokesperson Ali Rabiei has said $7 billion (€5.8 billion) in Iranian funds are tied up in the South Korean financial system due to the sanctions.
Iran was previously a steady supplier of oil to South Korea until former US President Donald Trump's administration cracked down on the purchases. Tehran has denied any connection between the ship's seizure and its trapped funds in South Korea.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry did not mention the Iranian funds in its statement on the ship's release. Seoul had previously offered to release the funds, pending US approval.
Could the ship's release be an attempt by Iran to influence ongoing nuclear talks?
The release of the ship comes as Iranian leaders and representatives from major world powers such as the US continue negotiations Friday on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna. The US withdrew from the deal in 2018 under Trump, but current US President Joe Biden has expressed willingness to rejoin the agreement if Iran stops its enrichment of uranium.
Iran is pushing for the US to lift sanctions from its economy as part of the negotiations. The sanctions have crippled Iran's economy and severed its connection to the global financial system.
wd/sms (AP, Reuters)