Seoul Faces Tough Balancing Act Over Iran

      December 07, 2011 13:09

      Robert Einhorn, a U.S. State Department adviser for non-proliferation and arms control, visited Korea on Monday. He told reporters the U.S. hopes all of its allies participate in additional sanctions against Iran, which is under suspicion of developing nuclear weapons. It is rare for a high-ranking U.S. official to speak publicly about a sensitive issue following a meeting with Korean government officials. The U.S. apparently asked Korea to halt imports of liquefied natural gas and petrochemical products from Iran.

      The International Atomic Energy Agency in a report on Nov. 8 detailed its suspicions about Iran's nuclear program and adopted a resolution criticizing Tehran 10 days later. The U.S. then placed Iran on its watchlist of countries suspected of money laundering, while the U.K. banned financial institutions from conducting any transactions with Iranian banks. France has decided to halt imports of crude oil from Iran.

      In response to the U.K. measures, radical protesters stormed the British Embassy in Tehran, further chilling Iran's relations with the West. The European Union retaliated by pulling out their ambassadors or other diplomatic staff. The U.S. and EU are concerned that further progress in Iran's nuclear program could trigger military retaliation from Israel and are trying to discourage Tehran through sanctions and other non-military pressure tactics. China and Russia oppose extra sanctions against Iran, while Japan has yet to announce its position on the matter.

      The Korean government took sanctions against Iran last year under UN Resolution 1929, resulting in the closure of the Seoul branch of Bank Mellat for two months. Despite that, trade between Korea and Iran amounted to US$14.5 billion in the first 10 months of this year, surpassing the previous record of $12.6 billion set in 2008. Korean cars account for 50 percent of the automobile market in Iran, while Korea imported $399.9 million worth of petrochemical products from the country last year.

      Iran is also suspected of cooperating with North Korea in developing long-range missiles. U.S. requests to implement further sanctions put Seoul in a difficult position, given the very real threat it faces from North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the cooperation South Korea has received from the U.S. in dealing with the North Korean menace. The Korean government must find a diplomatic solution that honors its principles but takes account of the pressures it faces.

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