Iran seizes tanker, ramps up uranium enrichment in fresh escalation with West

Tehran – Iran resumed uranium enrichment by up to 20 percent as the country’s biggest violation of the groundbreaking nuclear deal with the world powers to date, government spokesman Ali Rabiee told the state’s Mehr News on Monday.

Also on Monday, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized a ship flying the South Korean flag carrying thousands of tons of ethanol in the Persian Gulf, according to state news agencies IRIB and FARS News.

With the enrichment increase, Iran is one technical step away from the 90 percent enrichment required to manufacture a nuclear warhead. Prior to the announcement, Iran had enriched uranium at around 4.5 percent, which violates the nuclear pact, but at a significantly lower level.

President Hassan Rouhani visits a nuclear power plant outside of Bushehr, Iran.Mohammad Berno / AP file

The news comes amid simmering tension between the United States and Iran in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018, sparking a series of escalating incidents that resulted in the assassination of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq on January 3 last year.

The announcement of the enrichment and the seizure of the ship came the day after the year-long anniversary of Soleimani’s murder, in which thousands took to the streets to protest his death in Iraq on Sunday.

According to Iranian officials, the enrichment is being carried out at the Iranian nuclear power plant Fordo, which is hidden deep in a mountain near the holy city of Qom. According to the Iranian nuclear agreement, Tehran is only allowed to enrich uranium by around 3.5 percent; enrichment is not permitted in the Fordo plant.

The agreement provides that the world powers would grant Iran sanctions relief in return for agreeing to limit its uranium enrichment.

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Since the United States stepped out of the pact in May 2018 and imposed crippling sanctions against Iran, Tehran has consistently violated its own commitments to the agreement and raised the alarm among the other five parties: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China.

Iran’s decision comes after parliament passed a law aimed at increasing enrichment in order to put pressure on Europe to grant sanctions relief.

Up to 20 percent enriched uranium can be used to power nuclear reactors, according to Eric Brewer, assistant director of the nuclear project at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a think tank in Washington, DC.

Iran has a research reactor that uses nearly 20 percent enriched uranium, but it’s provided by other countries under the 2015 nuclear deal, Brewer added. It remains unclear what Iran plans to do with the more highly enriched uranium, if anything.

Tehran has long refused to develop a nuclear weapon, saying it would be against Islam.

The hike also serves as a pressure on the new administration of President-Elect Joe Biden. Biden, who was vice president when the United States entered the nuclear deal under President Barack Obama in 2015, has said he was ready to return to the pact if Iran honors the deal and has proposed building on the deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last month dampened hopes that the scope of the deal could be expanded, given that the country’s ballistic missile program and its regional influence are non-negotiable.

“There is a JCPOA that has been negotiated and agreed – either everyone agrees to it or they don’t,” he said, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that the inspectors have been monitoring activities at the Fordo site in Iran and that the director-general Rafael Mariano Grossi is expected to report to IAEA member states on Monday based on their information.

Ali Arouzi and Amin Hossein Khodadadi reported from Tehran; Saphora Smith reported from London.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Amin Hossein Khodadadi contributed.

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