Armed troops from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps raided a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to travel to Iran, the ship’s owner said Tuesday.
Iran had said the ship was polluting the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, but the latest maritime seizure came ahead of negotiations over Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks and amid growing tensions with the West over its nuclear program.
Iran said on Monday it was enriching uranium by up to 20%, a small technical step away from weapons grade levels of 90%, at its underground Ford facility.
That move appeared to be aimed at putting pressure on the United States in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration, which unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
It also comes before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who said he would rejoin the international agreement.
The South Korean ship was traveling from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates when Iranian forces boarded the ship, AP reported, after speaking with an official from the shipping company.
The official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said Iranian troops stormed the tanker and demanded that the captain sail into Iranian waters.
Since then, the company has been unable to communicate with the captain, the official told AP. Security cameras installed on the ship that initially transmitted footage of the scene on deck to the company are now off, the official said.
In recent months, Iran has sought to increase pressure on South Korea to unlock billions of dollars in frozen assets from oil sales obtained before the Trump administration tightened sanctions on the country’s oil exports.
The head of Iran’s central bank recently announced that the country was looking to use immobilized funds in a South Korean bank to purchase coronavirus vaccines through Coax, an international program designed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to participating countries.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry demanded the release of the ship and said in a statement that its crew was safe. The Defense Ministry said it would send an anti-piracy unit near the Strait of Hormuz, a 4,400-ton destroyer with some 300 troops.
The US State Department called for the immediate release of the tanker, accusing Iran of threatening “navigation rights and freedoms” in the Persian Gulf to “extort money from the international community to ease the pressure of sanctions.”
Last year, Iran similarly seized a British-flagged tanker and held it for months after one of its tankers was detained off Gibraltar.
The latest incidents coincide with the anniversary of the US drone strike that killed Guard General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last January.
As the anniversary approached and fears grew of possible Iranian retaliation, the United States sent B-52 bombers over the region and ordered a nuclear-powered submarine in the Persian Gulf.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism