Iran Seizes South Korean Tanker, Increases Uranium Enrichment to 20% Amid Rising Tensions With U.S.

Image: President Hassan Rouhani (Mohammad Berno / AP file)

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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SOURCE: NBC News, Ali Arouzi and Saphora Smith

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