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Tanker's owner says armed Iran Guard members boarded vessel

Tanker's owner says armed Iran Guard members boarded vessel
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The owner of a South Korean tanker seized by Iranian authorities on Monday claims that armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops boarded the ship and forced it to alter course and travel to Iran. 

According to The Associated Press, this account challenges Iran’s claim that authorities stopped and boarded the MT Hankuk Chemi because the tanker was allegedly polluting the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. 

Iran on Tuesday denied that it was using the ship and its crew as hostages, arguing that it was demanding South Korea release $7 billion in funds frozen under U.S. sanctions. 

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“We’ve become used to such allegations,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei said at a press briefing Tuesday, according to Reuters. “But if there is any hostage-taking, it is Korea’s government that is holding $7 billion, which belongs to us, hostage on baseless grounds.”

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it plans to send a group of officials to Iran to secure the early release of the ship and its crew members, which includes sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, the AP reported. 

South Korea’s presidential office said Tuesday that it views Iran’s ship seizure “very gravely,” according to the AP, and the U.S. State Department has called for the tanker’s release.

The move is seen by many as the latest in a series of actions by Iran to put pressure on the incoming administration of President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Biden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot MORE to remove the sanctions imposed by President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE over Iran’s nuclear program. 

However, with just two weeks before Biden takes office, U.S.-Iranian tensions have escalated, especially amid the first anniversary of the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. 

While Biden has expressed a desire to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the escalations by both the U.S. and Iran are likely to complicate the path to a new agreement.

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On Monday, Iranian officials announced that Tehran had resumed 20 percent uranium enrichment, surpassing the limit established by the Obama-era nuclear agreement the U.S. left in 2018.

The same day, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller reversed his decision to redeploy the aircraft carrier Nimitz, keeping the vessel in the Persian Gulf after threats from Iran against Trump.

Three days earlier, the carrier had been ordered to return home in a show of de-escalating tensions with Iranian leadership.

CNN reported later Monday that Trump personally ordered Miller to reverse course on the carrier following a White House meeting Sunday, citing a senior defense official.