The ship’s owner said, on Tuesday, that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces stormed a South Korean oil tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran, in the latest naval seizure by Tehran amid escalating tensions with the West over its nuclear program.
Monday’s military raid on MT Hankuk Chemi was at odds with Iranian explanations that they had stopped the ship for contaminating the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Instead, the Islamic Republic appeared to seek to increase its influence over Seoul ahead of negotiations over billions of dollars of Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks amid a US pressure campaign targeting Iran.
On Monday, Iran also began enriching uranium by up to 20%., A small technical step away from 90% weapon levels, at the Fordow Underground Facility. This move appears to be aimed at putting pressure on the United States in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration, which unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who said he was ready for it. Re-enter into the agreement.
DM Shipping Co. Ltd. In Busan, South Korea, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, details of Hankuk Chemi’s detention. The ship was traveling from Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, when Iranian forces arrived at the ship and said they would board it.
The official said Iranian forces had initially said they wanted to conduct an unspecified inspection of the ship. When the captain of the ship spoke to the company’s security officials in South Korea, the Iranian armed forces stormed the tanker while an Iranian helicopter circled overhead, the official said. The official added that the forces asked the captain to sail the tanker to Iranian waters in an unspecified investigation and refused to clarify its position.
The official said the company has since been unable to reach the captain. The official said the security cameras installed on the ship that initially transmitted footage from the scene of the accident on board the ship to the company are now closed.
After the company lost contact with the captain, the official said, the company received an anti-piracy security alert notification, suggesting that the captain had activated an onboard warning system. It remains unclear whether the ship attempted to seek outside help.
The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the Middle East conducts routine patrols in the region alongside a US-led coalition monitoring the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. There is also a separate European led effort working there.
The official denied that the ship was polluting the water.
In recent months, Iran has sought to escalate pressure on South Korea to unlock about $ 7 billion in assets frozen from oil sales gained before the Trump administration tightens sanctions on the country’s oil exports.
The head of Iran’s Central Bank recently announced that the country is seeking to use funds restricted in a South Korean bank to purchase coronavirus vaccines through COVAX, an international program designed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to participating countries.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry demanded the release of the ship, saying in a statement that its crew was in good condition. According to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the crew included sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it is sending its anti-piracy unit near the Strait of Hormuz – a 4,400-ton destroyer with about 300 troops.
The US State Department called for the immediate release of the tanker, accusing Iran of threatening “shipping rights and freedoms” in the Persian Gulf in order to “blackmail the international community to ease the pressure of sanctions.”
And last year, Iran similarly seized a British-flagged oil tanker and held it for months after it seized one of its tankers off Gibraltar.
The latest events coincide with the anniversary of the American drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last January. Iran responded by firing ballistic missiles at US bases in Iraq, wounding dozens of US soldiers. Tehran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner on the same night, killing all 176 people on board.
With the anniversary approaching and growing fears of a possible Iranian retaliation, the United States sent B-52 bombers over the region and ordered a nuclear-powered submarine in the Persian Gulf.
US Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said late Sunday that he had changed his mind about sending the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz home from the Middle East and instead would keep the ship in service. He cited Iranian threats against Trump and other US government officials as the reason for the redeployment, without going into details.
Last week, sailors discovered a mine stuck in an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf off Iraq, near the Iranian border, as it was preparing to transfer fuel to another company owned by a company that is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. No one has claimed responsibility for laying the mine, although it comes after similar attacks in 2019 near the Strait of Hormuz that the US Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran has denied any role.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, UAE. Associated Press Writer Isabel Debre in Dubai; Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; Robert Burns and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.