Iran provoked fresh confrontations with the West today by seizing an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf and confirming it would further enrich the raw materials for a nuclear bomb, in violation of international agreements.
South Korea mobilised its forces in the Strait of Hormuz and dispatched an anti-piracy unit to the Gulf on Monday afternoon after a ship bearing its flag, the MT Hankuk Chemi, was intercepted off the coast of Oman and escorted into Iranian waters.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) later confirmed it had seized the vessel and detained its crew in the southern port of Bandar Abbas, "due to the repeated infringement of maritime environmental laws".
Iranian media reported that the ship, which was carrying 7,200 tonnes of oil chemical products from Saudi Arabia to Fujairah, in the United Arab Emirates, had been “polluting the Persian Gulf with chemicals”.
But this was denied by the South Korean foreign ministry, which demanded the immediate release of the vessel and its crew of 20 from South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.
The American Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Middle East, said it was monitoring the incident amid a backdrop of escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington DC in the final weeks of the Trump Administration.
Iran is also in dispute with South Korea, which has for months refused to release $7 billion (£5.2 billion) Iranian oil revenues currently held in its banks, citing US-led sanctions.
The seizure came as the Iranian government announced that it would resume enriching uranium at five times the limit set by a 2015 pact with major world powers, complicating any efforts by European nations or US-President elect Joe Biden to save the deal.
"The process for producing 20 percent enriched uranium has started at Shahid Alimohammadi enrichment complex,” the spokesman Ali Rabiei said, referring to a facility at Fordow, south of Tehran, which is deep within a mountain.
Enrichment at 20 per cent remains short of the 90 per cent purity required to make a viable nuclear bomb, but the European Union warned the move was a “considerable departure” from the 2015 nuclear deal signed with the US, Britain, China and other leading nations, under which Iran was supposed to keep enrichment below 4 per cent.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the announcement meant that Tehran could only be trying to develop nuclear weapons. He added that his country would “not allow” that to happen.
The nuclear deal has been in jeopardy since 2018, when President Trump withdrew from the agreement and imposed sanctions designed to cripple the Iranian economy.
He subsequently ordered the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC commander, in a drone strike at Baghdad airport last year.
The Pentagon on Sunday said the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, would remain deployed in the Middle East to counter Iranian threats following the first anniversary of the killing, which has been marked amid renewed threats of vengeance from Iran’s allies and proxy groups across the region.
The IRGC has previously seized or attacked ships in the Gulf, most recently in 2019 when it impounded the British tanker Stena Impero for two months and was accused of placing limpet mines on other foreign vessels.
On Thursday a limpet mine was discovered aboard MT Pola, a Liberian-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf off Basra, Iraq, and had to be defused by military experts, although it was not clear who was responsible.
The Foreign Office did not respond to requests for comment.