SEOUL (AP) — Armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran, the vessel’s owner said Tuesday, the latest maritime seizure by Tehran amid heightened tensions with the West over its nuclear program.
The military raid on Monday on the MT Hankuk Chemi was at odds with Iranian explanations that they stopped the vessel for polluting the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Instead, it appeared the Islamic Republic sought to increase its leverage over Seoul ahead of negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks amid a U.S. pressure campaign targeting Iran.
An Iranian government spokesman, when asked on Tuesday about the seizure, offered Tehran’s bluntest acknowledgement yet of a link with the frozen assets.
“If anybody is to be called a hostage taker, it is the South Korean government that has taken our more than $7 billion hostage under a futile pretext,” spokesman Ali Rabiei said.
Iran on Monday also began enriching uranium up to 20%, a small technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%, at its underground Fordo facility. That move appeared aimed at pressuring the U.S. in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration, which unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
Later on Tuesday, comments by the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear program suggested Tehran’s current production of uranium enriched to 20% wouldn’t reach levels needed for a nuclear weapon for over two years, potentially giving time for negotiations under President-elect Joe Biden.
An official at DM Shipping Co. Ltd. of Busan, South Korea, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to talk to journalists, offered details of the Hankuk Chemi’s seizure. The vessel had been traveling from Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates when Iranian forces reached the ship and said they would board it.
Initially, Iranian forces said they wanted to run an unspecified check on the ship, the official said. As the vessel’s captain spoke to company security officials back in South Korea, armed Iranian troops stormed the tanker as an Iranian helicopter flew overhead, the official said. The troops demanded the captain sail the tanker into Iranian waters over an unspecified investigation and refused to explain themselves, the official added.
The company has since been unable to reach the captain, the official said. Security cameras installed on the ship that initially relayed footage on the scene on the deck to the company are now turned off, the official said.
After the company lost contact with the captain, the company received an anti-piracy security alert notice, suggesting the captain activated an onboard warning system, the official said. It remains unclear if the ship tried to call for outside assistance.
The U.S. Navy’s…