South Korea’s donation of 2,000 coronavirus masks to a private hospital in Iran was meant as a goodwill gesture to ease a dispute over billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in Seoul due to U.S. sanctions.
But when the South Korean Embassy posted photos on social media of Ambassador Yun Kang-hyeo meeting with the staff of Tehran’s Atieh hospital and presenting them with a box of face masks, it provoked a backlash.
Many Iranians reacted angrily on Twitter, with some blasting the move as “a joke,” an “insult,” and the “belittling” of a nation that has been struggling with the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of the coronavirus while also facing crippling U.S. economic sanctions.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on November 1 called the donation “a joke,” adding that “no nation will tolerate another nation [stealing] from it.”
Khatibzadeh said South Korea should return the around $7 billion of Iranian funds frozen in two South Korean banks.
South Korea was one of the biggest buyers of Iranian oil. But Seoul halted its imports after then-President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and reimposed sanctions against the Islamic republic. The accord had curtailed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
The dispute between Tehran and Seoul over the frozen funds has intensified in recent months. In April, Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) released a South Korean oil tanker, three months after seizing the vessel over alleged oil pollution.
The move was widely seen as an attempt to force South Korea to release the frozen funds. But Seoul has been wary of releasing most of the frozen money because it would be hit with fines for violating U.S. sanctions.
South Korea's 'Lost Credibility'
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman was not the only public figure to express outrage at South Korea’s donation of the face masks.
Lawmaker Alireza Salimi, addressing parliament on November 2, asked whether Seoul knew how many face masks and COVID-19 vaccines Iran could purchase just with the interest accumulated from its funds being kept in South Korean banks.
Salimi added that South Korea could not rebuild its “lost credibility” among Iranians by simply donating masks.
“They need to prove that they’re an independent country and [can] abide by their commitments,” Salimi was quoted as saying by the official government news agency IRNA.
Javan, a daily newspaper affiliated with the IRGC, said South Korea and its “stinking ambassador” to Tehran should be punished for “the humiliation.”
“His expulsion from the country [alone] cannot be a response to this insolence,” the daily said in an editorial on November 2.
Javan also criticized the staff at Atieh hospital for accepting the donation and Khatibzadeh for suggesting that the move was laughable.
“This was not a joke for anyone to laugh at,” the daily wrote, adding that “if South Korea was concerned about helping Iran, it would have returned Iran’s funds and not blocked it at a time of sanctions and coronavirus that have disrupted peoples’ livelihoods.”
'Give Us Our Money Back'
The uproar prompted a reaction by South Korea’s Embassy in Tehran, which emphasized the six decades of friendly ties between the two countries and posted a list of humanitarian assistance that Seoul had sent to Iran in recent months.
The aid included the donation of 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in October, the delivery of 1 million of face masks in July, and a $27 million contribution toward helping Iranian authorities deal with Afghan refugees residing in the country. The embassy said more humanitarian aid would be announced “soon.”
The face mask controversy comes after a decision in September by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to ban the import of South Korean-made home appliances.
The move was praised by Iran’s hard-liners as “punishment” for South Korea, which they say has bowed to “illegal pressure” by the United States.
Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in October that he had told his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, that Iran’s Central Bank has decided to launch a formal complaint against South Korean banks for not releasing Iran’s money.
He also suggested that Iran’s state TV could stop airing South Korean television shows.
"I told him that our children at home watch Korean shows and ask us if these kind Koreans are the same who don't give us our money back?" Amir-Abdollahian said.
Chung has defended Seoul’s decision, saying it has used part of Iran’s frozen funds to pay off Tehran’s annual dues at the United Nations.
In February, Iran said Seoul had agreed to unfreeze “part” of Iran’s blocked assets.
In March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States will oppose the release of billions of dollars in Iranian funds in South Korea until Tehran returns to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord.
President Joe Biden, who assumed office in January, has offered to revive the deal, but multiple rounds of indirect talks with Iran in Vienna that began in April have failed to clinch an agreement.
In response to Trump withdrawing the United States from the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions, Tehran gradually breached limits imposed by the pact, including on uranium enrichment, refining it to higher purity, and installing advanced centrifuges.
Last week, Iran said it will rejoin talks aimed at reviving the deal by the end of November.