EghtesadOnline: Senior diplomats from South Korea and Iran had discussions in Vienna on Iranian assets frozen in that country, the foreign ministry in Seoul said on Friday, with the thorny bilateral issue on the table for the talks aimed at restoring the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.
Seoul's First Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun met with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Bagheri Kani, in the Austrian capital Thursday, on the sidelines of the eighth round of negotiations to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Yonhap reported.
South Korea is not directly involved in the nuclear negotiations, but it has been closely watching relevant developments amid prolonged standoffs with Iran over the frozen assets.
During the meeting, Choi expressed hope for an early agreement on the nuclear deal, ditched by the Donald Trump administration in 2018, and the two sides shared the understanding that Tehran's frozen assets should be released soon, according to the ministry.
Iran has around $7 billion in funds frozen in two South Korean banks – the Industrial Bank of Korea and Woori Bank. Tehran has demanded the release of the funds.
The two sides also agreed to push for working-level consultations on details related to a money transferring process, the ministry said.
The fate of the frozen assets apparently depends on the negotiations between Iran and the world powers because it needs the approval of the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control to be released, according to Seoul officials.
Bagheri Kani, however, said that the South Korean government has to unfreeze Iran's frozen funds, regardless of the outcome of the talks in Vienna, ISNA quoted him as saying. "The unilateral US sanctions cannot justify Seoul’s delays in repayment of its debts to Tehran."
"South Korea's refusal over repaying debts to Iran is against law and inexcusable; it would be a dark spot in the history of relations between the two countries," Bagheri said.
On Wednesday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the sanctions relief issue was at the heart of the ongoing talks and that "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."
The eighth round of talks, the first under Iran's new President Ebrahim Raisi, resumed on Monday. Diplomats from all sides have indicated they are hoping to have a breakthrough by the end of January or early February, but sharp differences remain with the toughest issues still unresolved.
However, the arrival of South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun could be a positive signal.
South Korea was a major buyer of Iranian oil before the sanctions. Iran accounted for almost 15% of Korea’s oil imports at the time.
Non-oil trade between Iran and South Korea has also dropped significantly. According to Trade Promotion Organization of Iran, the figure has decreased from $8 billion in the fiscal year to March 2018 to $460 million during the first three quarters of the current Iranian year.