TEHRAN — Iran has resumed enriching uranium up to 20 percent in the country’s biggest breach yet of the landmark nuclear deal with world powers, government spokesperson Ali Rabiee told the state-run Mehr News on Monday.
Also on Monday, Iran’s revolutionary guard seized a South Korean-flagged ship carrying thousands of tons of ethanol in the Persian Gulf, according to state-linked news agencies IRIB and FARS News.
The enrichment hike puts Iran a technical step away from enriching at 90 percent, the level needed to produce a nuclear warhead. Before the announcement, Iran was enriching uranium at around 4.5 percent, in violation of the nuclear pact but at a significantly lower level.
The news comes amid simmering tensions between the United States and Iran in the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, setting off a series of escalating incidents that culminated in the killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq on Jan. 3 last year.
The enrichment announcement and the seizure of the ship came the day after the one year anniversary of Soleimani’s killing that saw thousands take to the streets to protest his death in Iraq on Sunday.
According to Iranian officials, the enrichment is being carried out at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility, which is hidden deep inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom. Under the terms of Iran’s nuclear deal, Tehran is only allowed to enrich uranium at around 3.5 percent and no enrichment is allowed at the Fordo plant.
The deal stipulates that in exchange for agreeing to limit its uranium enrichment, world powers would grant Iran sanctions relief.
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Since the United States pulled out of the pact in May 2018 and re-imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, Tehran has steadily breached its own commitments to the agreement, prompting alarm among the other five parties to the deal: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China.
Iran’s decision comes after parliament passed a bill aimed at hiking enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief.
Uranium enriched to up to 20 percent can be used to fuel nuclear reactors, according to Eric Brewer, deputy director with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a think tank in Washington D.C.
Iran has a research reactor that uses near 20 percent enriched uranium, but that fuel is provided by other countries under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, Brewer added. It remains unclear what Iran is planning to do, if anything, with the higher-enriched uranium.
Tehran has long denied seeking to develop a nuclear weapon and says doing so would be against Islam.
The hike also serves as pressure on President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration. Biden, who was vice president when the United States entered the nuclear deal under President Barack Obama in 2015, has said he is willing to return to the pact if Iran abides by the deal and has suggested building on the agreement.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani last month dampened hopes that it would be possible to extend the scope of the deal, saying the country’s ballistic missile program and its regional influence were non-negotiable.
“There is one JCPOA that has been negotiated and agreed — either everyone commits to it or they don’t,” he said, referring to the 2015 nuclear accord that is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi informed member states Monday that Iran began to feed uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordo plant for further enrichment up to 20 percent, the IAEA said in an emailed statement.
Iran had previously informed the agency of its intention to start producing uranium enriched up to 20 percent, it added.
Ali Arouzi and Amin Hossein Khodadadi reported from Tehran; Saphora Smith reported from London.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Amin Hossein Khodadadi contributed.