At the beginning of January, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps seized a South Korean tanker in Gulf waters and detained its crew. The incident comes amid rising tensions between Iran and South Korea concerning Iranian oil assets that were frozen in South Korean banks as a result of U.S. sanctions against Iran. Seoul demanded the immediate release of the tanker and its 20 crew members, but several Iranian media outlets reported the Guard Corps seized the tanker for releasing chemicals into the Gulf, according to Reuters. The United States State Department also called for the immediate release of the tanker, saying that the Iranian regime “continues to threaten navigational rights and freedoms in the Persian Gulf as part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions.” The conflict preceded a visit to Tehran by South Korea’s vice foreign minister days later to discuss Iran’s demanded release of the frozen $7 billion.
On January 10, about a week after the vessel’s initial seizure, Iran criticized South Korea for politicizing the incident while still pressuring Seoul to release the frozen $7 billion. Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-Kun of South Korea visited Tehran this week to discuss the release, amidst continued denials by Iran that the capture of the tanker “amounted to hostage taking,” saying that “it was Seoul that was holding Iran’s funds ‘hostage’,” as reported by Reuters. Iran’s state TV reported that Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi told Choi that Seoul “should refrain from politicizing the issue and fruitless propaganda and allow the legal proceedings to proceed.” All the while, Iran’s government maintains that the seizure was a technical matter dealing with “environmental pollution,” however the ship’s operating company said there was nothing to indicate that Iranian authorities were probing possible environmental violations before the seizure.
Iran’s ire here is not necessarily directed toward South Korea as much as it is aimed at the United States. As a result, even if South Korea immediately released the frozen money, it is unlikely to fully satisfy Iran. The frozen assets are a symptom but this conflict persists due to American involvement. However, Iran is framing it as an issue strictly between itself and South Korea. “For about two and a half years, South Korean banks have frozen Iran’s funds…it is not acceptable… In our view, this is more because of Seoul’s lack of political will [to resolve the issue] than the U.S. sanctions,” a semi-official Iranian outlet reported Foreign Minister Araqchi as saying. However, if the sanctions were not in place, this issue would not exist, again pointing to an underlying Iran-U.S. conflict that is spurring proxy incidents.
The United States re-imposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for a removal of sanctions. Following the reissuing of sanctions, Iran has consistently sidestepped the deal’s restrictions, which could make matters more difficult as the Biden administration takes office and seeks to reform the agreement. Just on Monday, Tehran announced it had resumed 20% uranium enrichment at one of its underground nuclear facilities. All evidence suggests that Tehran is acting out to push a response from the United States that they are unlikely to get as long as other intermediary players remain. It is easier for the U.S. to release a statement condemning Iranian aggression toward an ally than to confront and negotiate with Iran directly. As such, this incident and similar proxy conflicts are likely to persist if there is no move by the United States and Iran to come together and work out a new agreement.
Proposing a solution for this situation is difficult for several reasons, the primary one being that U.S.-Iran relations are likely to change at least somewhat in the next few weeks. After President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20, it will not be surprising if there is a rush to reestablish relations with many of the countries and leaders around the world that were suspended or neglected by the previous administration. As such, this issue could soon potentially begin to resolve itself. Again, while this is an issue between South Korea and Iran on the surface, the deeper conflict is almost entirely irrelevant to South Korea. This is not to say what Iran did was right or an appropriate means to achieve their intended ends; these aggressions toward relatively unrelated parties are problematic, as they make other parties less willing to assist Iran in any way and only alienates them from the allies they do have.
South Korea’s response to the incident has been fairly level-headed, all things considered, but Iran has been more forceful in their rhetoric when denying South Korea’s well-evidenced claims that this is not about environmental pollution but rather the frozen oil assets. Given that Seoul has not yet acquiesced despite these demands, it suggests they do not really fear Iran in this situation, which indicates that they are less likely to respond to incidents like this in violent or heavy-handed ways. The problem persists, however, and resolution must come from something deeper than these proxy conflicts.
The best path forward is for the new American administration to make every possible effort to re-establish the nuclear deal or create a new agreement with a similar format. That would include lifting sanctions, Iran’s real point of contention, in return for them again slowing and curbing their nuclear program. Not to say that U.S.-Iran relations were particularly warm relationship before, but the nuclear deal helped to establish a more peaceful working relationship. As Iran continues to instigate these aggressive incidents toward other countries around the world, it will be important for the Biden administration to make communication with Iran a diplomatic priority.
The positive aspect is that the groundwork for a new deal is already present. The fact that Iran agreed to a nuclear deal in the first place, one that included six other world powers at that, displays they are willing to compromise if the terms are right. The question becomes if re-establishing the old agreement will be enough. Will Iran demand more this time around if the United States seeks to reach a new agreement? It is difficult to predict, but this will be the major stumbling block to any attempts by the Biden administration to forge a new peaceful agreement. However, it is necessary that the U.S. at least enters these negotiations, even if they become contentious or prolonged.
While it is fortunate that few of these instigated disagreements turned into anything too contentious, that is not to say they could not in the future. If Iran continues to be ignored by the country they have a real issue with here, that being the United States, it is uncertain to what lengths they will go to get the attention they demand. Therefore, South Korea’s measured response deserves praise, especially as the world waits to see what a new American administration will do in the realm of foreign affairs. Only time will tell, but any attempts to reestablish a nuclear deal which includes lifting sanctions will likely help ease some of that tension.
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