Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in Persian Gulf waters and detained its crew containing nationals from South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.
- South Korea has demanded the release of a tanker seized by Iran’s elite military corps
- Iran has begun enriching its uranium, a move which contravenes the nation’s 2015 deal with world powers
- Israel’s Prime Minister has suggested Iran is doing so to develop nuclear weapons
Seoul confirmed the seizure of the chemical tanker by Iranian authorities in the waters off Oman, and demanded its immediate release.
The seizure comes at a time of tension between the two nations over Iranian funds frozen at South Korean banks due to US sanctions.
Several Iranian media outlets, including Iranian state TV, said the Guards navy captured the vessel for polluting the Gulf with chemicals.
The semi-official Tasnim news agency published pictures showing what it identified as Guards speed boats escorting the tanker HANKUK CHEMI, which it said was carrying 7,200 tonnes of ethanol.
It said the tanker was being held at Iran’s Bandar Abbas port city. The ship had 20 crew members, according to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
The US Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet was aware and monitoring the situation, spokeswoman Rebecca Rebarich said in response to a Reuters query.
Iranian authorities have yet to comment on the incident, which comes ahead of an expected visit by South Korea’s deputy foreign minister to Tehran.
British firm Ambrey confirmed the DM Shipping Co-vessel had departed from the Petroleum Chemical Quay in Jubail, in Saudi Arabia, before the incident and had since been tracked inside Iranian territorial waters headed towards Bandar Abbas
In early 2019, Iran heightened tensions in the world’s busiest oil waterway by seizing British-flagged tanker Stena Impero two weeks after a British warship had intercepted an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar.
Iran resumes uranium enrichment
The latest incident comes on the same day as Iran announced it has has resumed 20 per cent uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility, breaching a 2015 nuclear pact with major powers and possibly complicating efforts by US President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the deal.
The news was met with criticism from others in the international community with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the criticism.
Mr Netanyahu said the move was aimed at developing nuclear weapons.
“Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons,” he said.
The enrichment decision, announced by Iran’s Government on Monday and the latest contravention of the accord, coincides with increasing tensions between the Middle Eastern country and the US in the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration.
Iran started violating the accord in 2019 in response to Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the pact in 2018 and the reimposition of US sanctions that had been lifted under the deal.
The agreement’s main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from roughly two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.
The resumption of uranium enrichment was one of many items 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.
Such moves by Iran could hinder attempts by the incoming Biden administration to re-enter the agreement.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was set to inform members on Monday about developments in Iran, the IAEA said, after the announcement by Tehran.
“Agency inspectors have been monitoring activities at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant in Iran. Based on their information, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi is expected to submit a report to IAEA Member States later today,” a spokesman for the nuclear watchdog said in an email.
‘Considerable departure from commitments’
In Brussels, an European Union Commission spokesperson said that the “move, if confirmed, would constitute a considerable departure from Iran’s commitments”.
“All participants are interested in keeping deal alive. The deal will be kept alive as long as all participants keep their commitments,” they said.
On January 1, the IAEA said Tehran had told the watchdog it planned to resume enrichment of up to 20 per cent at Fordow site, which is buried inside a mountain.
“The process of gas injection to centrifuges has started a few hours ago and the first product of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas will be available in a few hours,” government spokesman Ali Rabeie said.
Iran had earlier breached the deal’s 3.67 per cent limit on the purity to which it can enrich uranium, but it had only gone up to 4.5 per cent, well short of the 20 per cent the Government was aiming for now and of the 90 per cent needed to make weapons.
US intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons programme that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever having had one.
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