Iran said Saturday it plans to enrich uranium in its underground Fordo nuclear facility by up to 20 percent “as soon as possible” and has pushed its program a technical step away from weapons quality as it puts pressure on the West over that ragged nuclear deals increased.
The move comes amid mounting tensions between Iran and the US in the dwindling days of President Donald Trump’s administration, who unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal in 2018.
This sparked an escalating series of incidents limited by a US drone attack that killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad a year ago. Next Sunday, American officials have concerns about possible retaliatory measures by Iran.
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Even Ali Akbar Salehi, the US-trained head of Iran’s civilian nuclear power organization, offered a military analogy to describe his agency’s willingness to take the next step.
“We are like soldiers and our fingers are on the trigger,” Salehi told Iranian state television. “The commander should give the order and we should shoot. We are ready for this and will produce (20% enriched uranium) as soon as possible.”
The decision came after Parliament passed a law that was later passed by a Constitutional Guard aimed at increasing enrichment in order to put pressure on Europe to grant sanctions relief. It also serves as pre-election pressure for President-elect Joe Biden, who has declared he is ready to resume the nuclear deal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency admitted that Iran informed its inspectors of the decision after news leaked overnight Friday.
“Iran has informed the agency that the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency intends to produce low-enriched uranium … up to 20 percent in the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant, in compliance with a piece of legislation recently passed by Parliament.” the IAEA said in a statement.
The IAEA added that Iran did not say when to promote fortification, despite the fact that the agency “has 24/7 inspectors in Iran and regular access to Fordo”.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to the IAEA in Vienna, wrote on Twitter on Friday that Tehran plans to resume enrichment by up to 20 percent after a Wall Street Journal journalist spread the word.
IRNA later reported on Ulyanov’s comments and linked the decision to Parliament’s bill aimed at re-enriching Iran’s underground Fordo facility. It also did not provide a time frame for higher enrichment to begin. The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Since the collapse of the agreement, Iran has resumed enrichment in Fordo, near the holy Shiite city of Qom, some 90 km southwest of Tehran.
Fordo is shielded by the mountains and surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It’s about the size of a soccer field, big enough to hold 3,000 centrifuges, but small and tough enough for US officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they opened the site to the public in 2009.
With the 2015 agreement, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment in exchange for sanctions easing. The agreement also provided for Fordo to be converted into a research and development facility.
With immediate effect, Iran enriches uranium up to 4.5 percent, which violates the agreement’s limit of 3.67 percent. Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium in store for at least two nuclear weapons if it is to pursue them. Iran has long maintained its nuclear program and is peaceful.
Iran has separately started construction of a new site in Fordo, according to satellite photos from The Associated Press in December.
Iran’s announcement coincides with the anniversary of the US drone attack on Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last year. In this attack, Iran later retaliated with a ballistic missile attack that injured dozen US troops in Iraq. Tehran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that night, killing all 176 people on board.
As the anniversary drew near, the US flew B-52 bombers over the region and sent a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.
On Thursday, seafarers discovered a limpets mine on a tanker in the Persian Gulf off Iraq near the Iranian border as it prepared to transfer fuel to another tanker owned by a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Nobody took responsibility for the mining industry, despite a series of similar attacks in 2019 that the U.S. Navy blamed Iran for. Tehran denied being involved.
In November, an Iranian scientist who had founded the country’s military nuclear program two decades earlier was killed in an attack in which Tehran blamed Israel.