DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran on Monday began enriching uranium up to 20% at an underground facility and seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the crucial Strait of Hormuz, further escalating tensions in the Middle East between Tehran and the West.
The announcement of enrichment at Fordo came as fears arose that Tehran had MT Hankuk Chemi had been seized. Iran later acknowledged the seizure, alleging “oil pollution” sparked the move. However, hours earlier, Tehran had said a South Korean diplomat was due to travel there to negotiate over billions of dollars in its assets now frozen in Seoul.
The dual incidents come amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s term in office, which saw the U.S. leader unilaterally withdraw from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and set off months of escalating incidents between the two countries.
Iranian state television quoted spokesman Ali Rabiei as saying that President Hassan Rouhani had given the order for the move at the Fordo facility.
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 atomic 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%.
Trump withdrew the U.S. unilaterally from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018. In the time since, there have been a series of escalating incidents between the two countries.
Iran’s decision comes after its parliament passed a bill, later approved by a constitutional watchdog, aimed at hiking enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief. It also serves as pressure ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he is willing to re-enter the nuclear deal.
Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency last week that it planned to take the step. 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 U.N. organization later in the day.
Meanwhile, satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed the MT Hankuk Chemi off Bandar Abbas on Monday afternoon, with no explanation as to the change in the vessel’s path. It had been traveling from Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. The ship had been carrying an unknown chemical shipment, according to data-analysis firm Refinitiv.