0846 GMT October 17, 2021
Iran on Tuesday blasted South Korea for holding $7 billion of its funds "hostage" but stressed that its seizure of a Korean tanker in Persian Gulf waters was not a tit-for-tat move.
"We are not hostage-takers," government spokesman Ali Rabiei told a press conference. "We are used to such allegations. But ... it is the government of Korea that has taken over $7 billion of ours hostage on baseless grounds."
The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps on Monday sent out naval speedboats to seize the Hankuk Chemi with 20 crew aboard over "breaking maritime environmental law". South Korea has demanded the release of the ship and dispatched a destroyer to the region, AFP wrote.
The IRGC said the Korean vessel was carrying 7,200 tons of "oil chemical products" after stopping at a Saudi port and was crewed by personnel from South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.
Rabiei added that the seizure was based on a court order after the tanker had "caused oil pollution in the Persian Gulf. It was warned beforehand, and the (seizure) request was a technical one."
"In the earliest possible time, a working-level delegation led by the regional director will be dispatched to Iran to try to resolve the issue on the ground through bilateral negotiations," said South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam, according to Reuters.
Asked about the status of the ship's crew before his meeting at the Seoul Foreign Ministry, Iranian Ambassador Saeid Badamchi-Shabestari told reporters "all of them are safe".
Separately, South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun will go ahead with a previously planned three-day trip to Tehran early next week, the spokesman added.
The vice minister's visit had been arranged prior to the seizure, as Tehran seeks the release of the billions of dollars held in Seoul over US sanctions.
South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha did not comment on speculation that Iran seized the ship in a bid to pressure Seoul to unlock Iranian assets.
"We need to verify the facts first and ensure the safety of our crew," Kang told reporters.
"We are making diplomatic efforts for an early release," she added.
Rabiei said South Korea had refused to provide Iran with the funds "even regarding goods that are not sanctioned" by the United States, noting that "our nation's historical memory will not forget this".
US President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew Washington from a landmark nuclear agreement with world powers and then reimposed and reinforced tough sanctions on Iran.
Iran is hoping to negotiate an agreement to use the frozen funds to "barter" for vaccine doses in the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic and other commodities.
According to the Yonhap News Agency, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said the Iranian government had tried to secure vaccines through the global COVAX initiative, backed by the World Health Organization.
Tehran had been in talks with the ministry and the US Treasury to pay for the doses with South Korean won, Yonhap said.