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Japan plays a waiting game as S. Korea and Iran try to settle tanker dispute

The oil tanker, with 20 crew members aboard, including five South Koreans, has been held by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) since Monday. (AFP)
The oil tanker, with 20 crew members aboard, including five South Koreans, has been held by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) since Monday. (AFP)
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06 Jan 2021 09:01:42 GMT9
06 Jan 2021 09:01:42 GMT9

Arab News Japan

TOKYO: Japanese officials are closely monitoring events in the Arabian Gulf where a South Korean tanker, the MT Hankuk Chemi, was seized early this week by Iranian military ships for alleged marine pollution. While the head of South Korea’s Middle East Department in the country’s Foreign Ministry is hurrying to Tehran to negotiate a “diplomatic solution,” Tokyo has kept a low profile, taking the traditional ‘wait and see’ position, a Japanese expert in Iran-Japan relations said.

Speculation arose that the seizure might be intended to pressure Seoul to unfreeze about US$7 billion worth of Iranian assets locked in South Korean banks after Washington tightened sanctions against Tehran. Seoul officials confirmed the two countries and the US have been in talks about using the frozen money to purchase COVID-19 vaccines and other goods for Iran.

There is little concern that Japan could suffer a similar fate as the Bank of Japan has no “frozen Iranian assets” that could trigger Iranian action against Tokyo’s interests, according to an expert, who wished to remain anonymous, with knowledge of the situation

Japanese observers suspect that Iran’s detention of the MT Hankuk Chemi is a way of sending a message to US President-elect Joe Biden that Tehran is willing to take action if he continues with outgoing President Donald Trump’s hard line towards Iran. Japanese analysts see a link between the current incident and attacks on oil facilities in the region related to the Iranian proxies in Yemen.

A recent attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia has made Tokyo worried about the safety of its crude oil supply. As of November 2020, nearly 94% of Japanese crude oil supplies came from Arab countries with Saudi Arabia providing over 40% of the total. Iranian oil is boycotted by Japanese companies due to American sanctions.

“The strength of Iran is not in its military or economic power, but rather in its ability to cause damage,” the Japanese expert said.

Increasing its enrichment of uranium was the first message by Tehran to the next American administration. More are expected.

The first anniversary of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani three days ago was also relevant to recent developments on the Iranian front. While Iran may be reluctant to take on the US directly, it wanted to show its people and the world it has ways of challenging the United States.

“South Korea is a soft target for Iran,” said a Japanese businessman with links to the Middle East. “The USA and Japan are both somewhat distant from President Moon’s administration. Korea has to solve this problem largely on its own; certainly without any help from Tokyo.”

An official of the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo said today there are no plans at the moment to issue any statement over the tanker problem.

Japanese security sources said that as there was no evidence the Korean tanker was causing pollution, “The Iranians might be trying to make a double impact: First is sending a message to the USA and the world that crude oil shipments passing through the bottleneck of the Straits of Hormuz are at risk; and secondly, pressuring the Koreans to release some of Iran’s frozen assets.”

One Iranian official said Korea is holding Iran’s assets hostage, rather than the ship being held by Iran.

“The Middle East is showing new geopolitical movements where everybody is adjusting their position before Biden is inaugurated,” a Japanese analyst said. “Tokyo as usual will be watching closely and hoping all goes well.”

The South Korean government said it is verifying the facts related to Iran’s seizure of the South Korean tanker to see whether the decision to hold the ship on claims of causing environmental pollution was based on legally valid grounds and was carried out in line with international law, Yonhap News reported.

The oil tanker, with 20 crew members aboard, including five South Koreans, has been held by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) since Monday.

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