Iran Starts 20 Percent Uranium Enrichment, Seizes Tanker in Strait

Iran Starts 20 Percent Uranium Enrichment, Seizes Tanker in Strait
Construction at Iran's Fordo nuclear facility on Dec. 11, 2020. (Maxar Technologies via AP)
Harry Lee

Iran declared on Monday that it began enriching uranium up to 20 percent at its Fordo facility and seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, amid escalating tensions in the Middle East around the anniversary of the killing of Iran’s former top general Qassem Soleimani.

Iranian spokesman Ali Rabiei said that President Hassan Rouhani had given the order for the move at the Fordo facility.

Iran’s parliament passed a bill in early December 2020, following the assassination of its top nuclear scientist. The bill was aimed to pressure Europe into lifting sanctions.

The 20 percent enrichment is only a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.

In the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Iran was only allowed to enrich uranium to 3.67 percent, and no enrichment would be permitted in the Fordo facility for 15 years.

On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump announced the United States' withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency on Jan. 1 that it planned to step up its uranium enrichment.

The IAEA said Monday that “agency inspectors have been monitoring activities” at Fordo and that its director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, planned to issue a report to member nations of the UN.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Iran’s enrichment decision, saying it “can not be explained in any way other than the further realization of its intention to develop a military nuclear program.”

“Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons,” he added.

The U.S. State Department says that as late as last year, it “continued to assess that Iran is not currently engaged in key activities associated with the design and development of a nuclear weapon.”

Iran's Fordo nuclear site on Nov. 4, 2020. (Maxar Technologies via AP)
Iran's Fordo nuclear site on Nov. 4, 2020. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

Iran also acknowledged Monday that it had seized the MT Hankuk Chemi, an oil/chemical tanker under the flag of South Korea.

Iran alleged that the vessel’s “oil pollution” sparked the move.

Over the past months, Iran has sought to escalate pressure on South Korea to unlock some $7 billion in frozen assets from oil sales earned before the Trump administration tightened sanctions on the country’s oil exports.

Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said authorities there were aware and monitoring the situation.

Tension in the region has risen in the lead up to the anniversary of Soleimani's death. On Dec. 20, at least eight rockets were fired at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. Trump afterward warned Iran to "think it over."

Ten days later the United States dispatched B-52 bombers over the region and sent a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.

Acting U.S. defense secretary Christopher Miller announced late Sunday that he changed his mind about sending the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz home from the Middle East and instead will keep the vessel on duty.

Miller cited Iranian threats against Trump and other U.S. government officials as the reason for the redeployment.

The Associated Press and Mimi Nguyen Ly contributed to this report.