Iran has released a South Korean oil tanker, the Iranian Foreign Ministry says, more than three months after the ship was detained for environmental pollution.
“Following the completion of an investigation into the violation of the [South] Korean ship and at the request of the owner and the Korean government for the release of the ship, a release order was issued by the esteemed prosecutor,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Friday.
Khatibzadeh said the fact that the ship and its captain did not have a record of breaching maritime regulations in the region played a role in “the positive view” of the prosecutor.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran, as a country with long coasts in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman, emphasizes the full observance of maritime regulations, including the regulations on environmental protection, and monitors and follows up any violations in this regard,” he added.
On January 4, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)’s Navy said the South Korean-flagged MT Hankuk Chemi tanker had been detained upon a request by Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization and a verdict by the office of Hormozgan province’s prosecutor.
Carrying 20 crew members, the ship was sailing through the Strait of Hormuz when it was impounded for causing water pollution. It was headed to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after loading 7,200 tonnes of oil chemical products in Saudi Arabia.
In February, the crew of the tanker received permission to leave Iran in a humanitarian move, but they remained on the ship for maintenance purposes.
The release of the tanker was first announced by South Korea’s Foreign Ministry earlier on Friday, when it said the ship and its captain and 12 crew members had left the port near Bandar Abbas on the southern coast at around 6 a.m. in Iran’s time.
South Korea had tried to suggest that the detention was linked to Tehran’s anger over Seoul’s refusal to release about $7 billion of Iranian assets locked in South Korean banks due to US sanctions, but Iran had maintained all along that the decision was purely a “technical issue” related to the Iranian Judiciary.
The tanker’s release came a day after Iran’s Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati stated that nothing new has happened with regard to Iran’s money being held in South Korean banks.
“The Central Bank is responsible for the money, and nothing has happened in this regard yet, and of course the use of these resources is the right of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said.
“The $7 billion of blocked assets in South Korea must be released as soon as possible, and we will definitely sue for damages,” he added.
While Tehran has been pressing Seoul to unblock its money, South Korea said in February that Iran’s money will be released only after consultations with the US government.
“The actual unfreezing of the assets will be carried out through consultations with related countries, including the United States,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said on February 24.
A day later, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, that over the past two and a half years, Tehran-Seoul ties have been adversely affected by the “illegal” move of South Korean banks to freeze Iran’s assets.
“South Korea should provide access to Central Bank of Iran's funds [blocked] in its banks as soon as possible,” the foreign minister said.
The US, under former president Donald Trump, unilaterally imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran after it unilaterally walked away from the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in May 2018. Trump claimed at the time that he wanted to reach a “better deal” with Iran through what he termed the maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic.