Iran on Monday has announced that it had resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity, far beyond the limits laid out in the 2015 nuclear deal, in a move likely to further escalate tensions with the United States.
Iran also seized a South Korean-flagged chemical tanker on Monday, according to semi-official Iranian news agencies, for “creating environmental and chemical pollution in the Persian Gulf.”
Both moves came a day after the one-year anniversary of the US killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, and less than three weeks before the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, reports CNN.
As tensions continue to rise, President Trump directed the Pentagon to keep a US aircraft carrier in the Middle East, reversing a decision to send it out of the region last week.
An Iranian government spokesman said Monday that experts had restarted uranium enrichment toward a 20% target at its underground Fordow nuclear facility, according to semi-official news agency Mehr and state news agency IRNA.
Iran currently enriches its uranium stockpile up to around 4.5%, which is above the 3.67% cap imposed by the 2015 pact with world powers, but far short of the 90% that is considered weapons-grade. Iran has continually denied it intends to assemble nuclear weapons.
The country had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its intent to enrich uranium at 20%, IAEA spokesman Fredrik Dahl told CNN on Friday. On Monday morning, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said it started the enrichment process a “couple of hours ago” in the Fordow site, noting that the first UF6 enriched uranium would be produced in a few hours, IRNA said.
A challenge from Iran
The development poses a challenge for US President-elect Joe Biden, who has pledged to reinstate the deal after he takes office on January 20. President Trump walked away from the agreement in 2018, instead restarting sanctions on the Iranian regime.
The ramp-up came after Iran’s parliament passed a law last month to boost uranium enrichment to pre-2015 levels and block nuclear inspections if sanctions are not lifted. The bill was approved in the wake of the assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November.
“The law obliges the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to produce at least 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium annually and store it inside the country,” the Mehr news agency reported.
Iran seizes chemical tanker
Meanwhile, Monday, news agencies and the Dryad Global firm reported that Iran had seized a chemical tanker bearing the South Korean flag.
“Reporting indicates that the South Korean flagged Chemical Tanker HANKUK CHEMI (IMO:9232369) has likely been detained by Iranian forces in the Straits of Hormuz while inbound to Fujairah,” Dryad Global said.
South Korea sent its Cheonghae anti-piracy unit to the Strait of Hormuz in response, its Ministry of Defense said, adding that there were 20 crew on board including five South Koreans.
A “vessel that was sailing near Oman sea of the Hormuz waters on January 4 afternoon is moving to the Iranian waters following Iranian authorities’ request,” the ministry said in a statement.
US to keep aircraft carrier in the region
Acting US Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller ordered the USS Nimitz to return to the Middle East following a White House meeting Sunday, a senior defense official told CNN.
The decision reversed Miller’s order last week to send the aircraft carrier out of the region and home, in part, to send a de-escalation signal to Iran amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran.
One defense official says Miller’s idea of de-escalation had not been adopted as a formal, approved policy. It took top commanders by surprise, several defense sources said. US Central Command wanted the carrier to stay in the region because of the policy of Iran deterrence.