Iran flexes its muscles before Biden comes to power as it seizes South Korea tanker in Gulf

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has seized a South Korean tanker in the Gulf, according to Iranian media.

Seoul demanded the vessel’s immediate release after confirming it had been captured by Iranian authorities in waters off Oman.

There is tension between the two countries after US sanctions led to Iranian funds being frozen in South Korean banks.

It appears that Iran has resorted to an old tactic at a moment when it feels under pressure.

The South Korean tanker was sailing through the narrow Strait of Hormuz when it was seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels for allegedly polluting the waters with chemicals.

That is doubtful. The more likely motive is revenge at $7bn of Iranian government money being frozen in South Korean accounts because of US sanctions.

Iran claims it needs the money to buy equipment and vaccines to treat COVID-19.

Medicine is exempt from sanctions, and in recent months, Iran has tried unsuccessfully to persuade Seoul to release the money.

The timing is no coincidence either: South Korea’s deputy foreign minister is due to visit Tehran in the coming days, and this will strengthen Iran’s hand in negotiations.

Iranian state television showed pictures of the MT Hankuk Chemi being escorted to Bandar Abbas port on Iran’s gulf coast. South Korea has ordered some naval ships to the area in response.

Iran has form here. In 2019, the Revolutionary Guard repeatedly tried to seize British flagged tankers in retaliation against the impounding of an Iranian ship off Gibraltar. They were eventually successful, capturing the Stena Impero.

Weeks beforehand, a series of explosions onboard tankers in the Gulf came at a pressure point over the Iranian nuclear deal – as the Trump administration ramped up sanctions against the regime. Tehran denied any involvement.

We’re now in another tense period between Iran and the US, albeit not yet so active as those summer months of 2019.

The Sunday just gone marked a year since Iranian General Qassam Soleimani was killed in an American drone strike shortly after landing at Baghdad airport. Iran might yet wish to mark that anniversary in some way.

There is an expectation that Donald Trump might also try a parting shot during his final days in office, to stop Joe Biden renegotiating the nuclear deal when he takes office.

B-52 bombers have been sent to the region, and the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier is staying in the Gulf area a little longer, reversing an original plan to leave as a sign of de-escalation.

And in a move that could force the US president’s hand, Iran has announced a resumption in the enrichment of uranium to 20% purity, breaking the 2015 nuclear deal and dramatically speeding up the process towards a nuclear weapon.

The European Union has criticised this as a “serious deviation” from the deal.

When Tehran did something similar a decade ago, it almost triggered a strike by Israel.

So again we’re in a game of brinkmanship: on one side an outgoing president who might think he has little to lose, and on the other, Iran’s hardliners starting to flex their muscles before Mr Biden comes to power.

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