DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A South Korean oil tanker held for months by Iran amid a dispute over billions of dollars seized by Seoul left port early Friday after the ship and its captain were released, just hours ahead of further talks between Tehran and world powers over its tattered nuclear deal.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said the MT Hankuk Chemi left an Iranian port around 6 a.m. local time after completing an administrative process, and data from MarineTraffic.com showed the tanker leaving Bandar Abbas in the early morning hours.
A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, later confirmed that Iran had released the vessel. “At the request of the owner and the Korean government, the order to release the ship was issued by the prosecutor,” Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying by the state-run IRNA news agency.
The Hankuk Chemi had been traveling in January from a petrochemicals facility in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates when armed troops from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stormed the vessel and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran.
Iran had accused the MT Hankuk Chemi of polluting the waters in the crucial Strait of Hormuz, but the seizure was widely seen as an attempt to pressure Seoul to release billions of dollars in Iranian assets tied up in South Korean banks in response to American sanctions on Iran.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry did not elaborate on the terms of the ship’s release. Iran in February released much of the ship’s crew.
The Yonhap news agency in South Korea, quoting an anonymous Foreign Ministry official, suggested that Seoul could pay off Iran’s United Nations dues that had been in arrears.
In January, the United Nations said Iran topped a list of countries that owed money to the world body, and the country risks losing its voting rights if the debt issue is not resolved.
The development came as Iran and world powers were set to resume negotiations in Vienna on Friday to break the standoff over U.S. sanctions against Iran and Iranian breaches of the nuclear agreement.
The 2015 nuclear accord, which President Donald Trump abandoned three years later, offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.