Iran on Monday seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the crucial Strait of Hormuz, further escalating tensions in the Middle East between Tehran and the West.
Iran acknowledged the seizure of the MT Hankuk Chemi, alleging “oil pollution” sparked the move. Hours earlier, Tehran had said a South Korean diplomat was due to travel there to negotiate over billions of dollars in its assets now frozen in Seoul.
The boat seizure — which followed an announcement by Iran that it would start enriching uranium to 20% in violation of the nuclear deal — come amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s term in office.
Satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed the MT Hankuk Chemi off Bandar Abbas on Monday afternoon, with no explanation as to the change in the vessel’s path. It had been traveling from Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. The ship had been carrying an unknown chemical shipment, according to data-analysis firm Refinitiv.
First photos of the Fujairah-bound South Korean chemical tanker HANKUK CHEMI, which was seized today by IRGC Navy because of "chemical pollution" in Iran's waters pic.twitter.com/1P8t1vxV8w
— Reza Khaasteh (@Khaaasteh) January 4, 2021
Calls to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry and the ship’s listed owner, DM Shipping Co. Ltd. of Busan, South Korea, were not immediately answered after business hours Monday. Iran did not acknowledge the vessel’s location.
The United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations, an information exchange overseen by the British royal navy in the region, acknowledged an “interaction” between a merchant vessel and Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all the world’s oil passes.
As a result, the UKMTO said the merchant vessel made an “alteration of course” north into Iran’s territorial waters.
Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, said authorities there were aware and monitoring the situation.
Ambrey, a British security firm, reported the incident as an apparent seizure. Dryad Global, another maritime security firm, said the ship’s crew was 23 sailors from Indonesia and Myanmar.
Iran’s announcement coincides with the anniversary of the US drone strike killing Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last year. That attack later saw Iran retaliate by launching a ballistic missile strike, injuring dozens of US troops in Iraq. Tehran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that night, killing all 176 people on board.
As the anniversary approached, the US has sent B-52 bombers flying over the region and sent a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.
On Thursday, sailors discovered a limpet mine on a tanker in the Persian Gulf off Iraq near the Iranian border as it prepared to transfer fuel to another tanker owned by a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. No one has claimed responsibility for the mining, though it comes after a series of similar attacks in 2019 near the Strait of Hormuz that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied being involved.
In November, an Iranian scientist who founded the country’s military nuclear program two decades earlier was killed in an attack Tehran blames on Israel.