The United States has called on Iran to release the South Korean tanker that they seized in the Gulf.
The US also accused Iran of threatening freedom of navigation as a way to get out of economic sanctions.
“The (Iranian) regime continues to threaten navigational rights and freedoms in the Persian Gulf as part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions. We join the Republic of Korea’s call for Iran to immediately release the tanker,” said an anonymous state department spokesperson as reported by Reuters.
The tanker was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard for violating “environmental protocols,” according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
Tensions are escalating between Iran and the US a year after the US assassinated Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani.
Iran has begun enriching uranium to 20 per cent purity, its most significant breach yet of the 2015 accord that placed limits on its nuclear technology programme.
Those moves together signal that Iran is trying to strengthen its position ahead of talks with the incoming Biden administration by responding to US pressure with its own manoeuvres to match US escalations, according to analysts.
“Iran wants to deter a potential strike by the US,” said Thomas Juneau, a Middle East specialist at the University of Ottawa and a former Canadian defence department analyst.
“It needs to signal that it’s able to act. At the same time, Iran is putting its pieces in place to maximise its position with the Biden administration when it comes into office. It is under massive pressure from the US and its needs to build up assets that it trades away.”
Iran has been steadily expanding its nuclear programme beyond the limits set by the Iran nuclear deal in response to an aggressive campaign of US sanctions that have damaged its economy.
Mr Biden and members of his incoming team have said they are eager to re-enter the Iran deal while also negotiating other aspects of what they describe as Iran’s disruptive behaviour in the region, including its support for armed groups and its missile programme. But a bill passed by Iranian lawmakers in recent days could bar any talks with the US on any topic other than its nuclear programme.
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