Iran starts 20% uranium enrichment, seizes S. Korean-flagged tanker

Photo from a brochure published by the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization on Nov. 6, 2019, showing the interior of the Fordow plant in Qom, Iran.
Photo from a brochure published by the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization on Nov. 6, 2019, showing the interior of the Fordow plant in Qom, Iran. © Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, AFP (file photo)

Iran on Monday said it started enriching uranium up to 20% purity at its Fordow facility, in its biggest breach of a 2015 nuclear deal threshold as state media acknowledged that Tehran seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

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"The process for producing 20 percent enriched uranium has started at Shahid Alimohammadi enrichment complex (Fordow)," said Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei in a statement posted on the website of the state broadcaster.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered the enrichment "in recent days", and "the gas injection process started as of hours ago”, the statement noted.

The move follows the approval of a bill last month by the conservative-dominated parliament "for the lifting of sanctions and protection of the Iranian people's interests" and mandating Rouhani's government to "produce and store 120 kilogrammes (265 pounds) per year of uranium enriched to 20%".

The law also calls on the administration to end UN inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, if the remaining parties to the deal – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – do not facilitate Iran's oil sales and guarantee the return of the proceeds.

The announcement came as Tehran on Monday confirmed that Revolutionary Guards seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz due to “environmental hazards”.

"This tanker had a South Korea flag and was seized over oil pollution and environmental hazards," the Fars news agency and other local media reported.

Satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed the MT Hankuk Chemi off the port of Bandar Abbas on Monday afternoon without explanation. It had been traveling from Saudi Arabia to Fujairah in the UAE.

‘Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons’

The dual incidents came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US in the waning days of President Donald Trump's term in office, which saw the US leader unilaterally withdraw from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers and set off months of escalating incidents between the two countries.

Iran’s decision to begin enriching to 20% a decade ago nearly brought an Israeli strike targeting its nuclear facilities, tensions that only abated with the 2015 nuclear deal. A resumption of 20% enrichment could see that brinksmanship return as that level of purity is only a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

Responding to the announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

In a statement, Netanyahu said Iran's enrichment decision could be explained only as a bid to "continue to carry out its intention to develop a military nuclear programme". He added: "Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons."

Israel does not confirm or deny reports of its nuclear weapons programme and is widely believed to have its own programme.

Pressure ahead of Biden inauguration

Tehran started violating the accord in 2019 in response to Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal pact in 2018 and the reimposition of US sanctions that had been lifted under the deal.

The agreement's main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from roughly two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.

Iran’s decision comes weeks before US president-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20 and the move is widely seen as a pressure tactic ahead of the inauguration. Biden has said he is willing to re-enter the nuclear deal.

In Brussels, an EU Commission spokesperson said Iran’s uranium enrichment announcement, “if confirmed, would constitute a considerable departure from Iran's commitments".

"All participants are interested in keeping deal alive. The deal will be kept alive as long as all participants keep their commitments,” said the spokesperson.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is set to inform members on Monday about developments in Iran, the IAEA said, after the announcement by Tehran.

EU said it would wait for a briefing by the head of the IAEA to EU member states before commenting further.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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