Iran Frees South Korean Ship in Sign of Detente Amid Atomic Talks
An Iranian tugboat shunts the bow of a cargo ship towards the dockside during mooring operations at Bandar Imam Khomeini port. (Photographer: Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg)

Iran Frees South Korean Ship in Sign of Detente Amid Atomic Talks

Iran released a South Korean chemicals tanker that it seized three months ago, a sign of possible detente between Tehran and world powers as they hold talks over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

The Hankuk Chemi, detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Jan. 4, was freed after Iran’s judiciary completed its investigation, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said. It was released Friday at the request of Seoul’s government, which also confirmed the release.

Iran’s government claimed the tanker, which was sailing through the Strait of Hormuz carrying petrochemicals, violated environmental laws. The incident soon got tied up in an ongoing dispute over $7 billion in Iranian oil revenue that’s stuck in South Korean banks because of U.S. sanctions.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-Kyun is due to visit Tehran on Sunday to discuss the funds and meet with high-level Iranian officials, including the first vice president, parliament speaker and an adviser to the Supreme Leader, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said.

Diplomats held talks on Friday in Vienna to discuss a U.S. return to the landmark 2015 accord and said they’d meet again on Wednesday.

Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei said in March that South Korea would release $1 billion of its trapped funds as an initial step to resolving the ship dispute, though the U.S. denied authorizing such a move until Tehran complies with the nuclear deal.

None of Iran’s funds in South Korea have been released though it is pursuing the removal of banking embargoes in the ongoing Vienna talks, Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati said Thursday evening on Clubhouse. He reiterated previous calls that Iran had to be repaid in full for the trapped revenue, in addition to penalties for the delay.

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