Iran ramps up uranium enrichment and seizes tanker

Iran has begun enriching uranium up to 20 per cent and seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in Gulf waters on Monday, moves that could escalate tensions with the incoming US administration as it seeks to revive the nuclear deal.

The increase from about 4 per cent — a further breach of a 2015 agreement with world powers that the US abandoned in 2018 — brings Iran closer to being able to produce weapons-grade uranium, which requires 90 per cent purity.

“The process of enriching uranium at 20 per cent purity has started,” Ali Rabiei, Iran’s government spokesman, said on Monday. “The process of injecting gas [to centrifuges] started a few hours ago and uranium hexafluoride (UF6) . . . will be achieved in a few hours.” Iran has always denied pursuing nuclear weapons.

Both moves were viewed as a sign of Tehran’s mounting frustration with the Trump administration’s crippling sanctions. Mr Trump imposed the sanctions after unilaterally withdrawing the US from the accord Tehran signed with world powers.

The remaining signatories, including the UK, France and Germany, have remained committed to the agreement, but Iran has responded by increasing its nuclear activity. US president-elect Joe Biden has promised to return to the nuclear deal provided the Islamic republic commits to full compliance.

The EU said that, if implemented, the Iranian move would be “a considerable departure from Iran’s nuclear commitments” and recalled the importance of avoiding any “steps that could undermine” the deal.

Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “The biggest message the Iranians want to signal [to] the Biden administration and the European capitals [is] that Iran isn’t just going to sit on its hands while they deliberate when to kick-start diplomacy.” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to the IAEA, said his country wasn’t “enthusiastic” about Tehran’s move. But he added that there was “nothing to overdramatise”.

The naval forces of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards seized a South Korean oil tanker that was carrying 7,200 tonnes of ethanol allegedly for “constant violations of marine environmental laws”, a statement by the forces said.

It added that the Hankuk Chemi tanker was taken to Iran’s Bandar Abbas port city and the crew were detained. Five of the 20 sailors are South Korean. Seoul has urged Tehran to release its citizens and confirmed that its counter-piracy unit had been sent to nearby waters.

The Islamic republic has previously expressed frustration with Seoul over blocking access to $7bn of Iranian money kept in Seoul’s banks. Abdolnaser Hemmati, Iran’s central bank governor, last month said that Iran had been unable to transfer €180m to Swiss banks to buy coronavirus vaccines.

South Korea, the world’s fifth-biggest oil importer, last year expanded its counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to include the Strait of Hormuz — a move that followed US-led pressure on its allies to play a greater role in the region.

The Strait of Hormuz is the main export route for crude and other fuels from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Kuwait and Iran. About a third of the world’s oil passes through the narrow waterway every day.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been high in recent days, the one-year anniversary of the assassination of one of Iran’s most powerful military leaders, Qassem Soleimani. US officials have warned that the Islamic republic or its regional proxies could target US interests.

On Sunday, the Pentagon announced that it was reversing its decision to redeploy the USS Nimitz aircraft from the Middle East because of “threats by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other US government officials”. 

Last month, Iran’s legislative body forced the government of centrist president Hassan Rouhani to increase its uranium enrichment activities in contravention of the nuclear accord.

Mr Rouhani — who is in a power struggle with his hardline opponents ahead of Iran’s presidential election in June — disagreed with the parliament’s decision, which he said could complicate talks with the US.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said in a post on Twitter that the move was done “as legislated by our Parliament”. He, however, said: “Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.”

Additional reporting by Andrew England in London, Michael Peel in Brussels, Edward White and Song Jung-a in Seoul 

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