TEHRAN – Iran has resumed enriching uranium to 20 percent in the country’s biggest violation of a landmark agreement with world powers, government spokesman Ali Rabi told state-run Mehr News on Monday.
On Monday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards intercepted a South Korean flagged ship carrying thousands of tons of ethanol in the Persian Gulf, state-affiliated news agencies IRIB and FARS News reported.
The increase in enrichment is a technical step towards enriching Iran by as much as 100 percent, a level required for nuclear weapons production. Prior to the declaration, Iran was enriching uranium to about a percentage point, in violation of the nuclear deal but at a significant level.
The news comes amid fierce tensions between the United States and Iran in the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 in a series of escalating series that resulted in the assassination of top Iranian general Qasim Solimani in Iraq on January 3 last year.
The proclamation of prosperity and the seizure of the ship came a day after the one-year anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination, with thousands taking to the streets in Iraq on Sunday to protest his death.
According to Iranian officials, breeding is taking place at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility, hidden inside a mountain near the holy city of Qaim. Under the terms of Iran’s nuclear deal, Tehran is only allowed to enrich uranium to around 3.5 percent, and no enrichment is allowed at the Fordo plant.
The deal stipulates that in return for agreeing to limit its uranium enrichment, world powers will ease sanctions on Iran.
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With the United States withdrawing from the agreement in May 2018 and re-imposing disability sanctions on Iran, Tehran has consistently violated its commitments to the agreement, raising alarm among five other parties to the deal: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China.
Iran’s decision comes after parliament passed a bill for composite growth to pressure Europe to ease sanctions.
Uranium, enriched up to 20 percent, could be used to fuel a nuclear reactor, according to Eric Brewer, deputy director with a project on nuclear issues at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Brower added that Iran has a research reactor that uses about 20 percent enriched uranium, but that the fuel is supplied by other countries under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, adding that it is not clear whether Iran is highly enriched. Plans to do anything with uranium.
Tehran has long refused to develop a nuclear weapon, saying doing so would be against Islam.
The increase also serves as pressure on the next administration of President-elect Joe Biden. Biden, who was vice president when the United States signed a nuclear deal with President Barack Obama in 2015, has said he is ready to return to the treaty if Iran abides by the deal and suggests moving forward.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last month dashed hopes that it would be possible to increase the scope of the deal, saying the country’s ballistic missile program and its regional influence were negotiable.
Referring to the 2015 Nuclear Agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan, he said there is a JCPO that has been negotiated and agreed upon – either everyone commits to it or they do not.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement that observers were monitoring Iran’s Fordo site and, based on their information, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi was expected to submit a report to IAEA member states on Monday.
Ali Arozi and Amin Hussein Khodadadi reported from Tehran; Safora Smith reported from London.
The Associated Press contributes to this report.
Amin Hussain Khodadadi Contributed.