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Iran begins 20% uranium enrichment

Iran resumed enrichment of uranium to 20% in a move closer to weapons grade levels and further away from the 2015 nuclear deal.

A satellite photo in December of Iran’s nuclear facility at Fordo
A satellite photo in December of Iran’s nuclear facility at Fordo (AN/Maxar Technologies)

VIENNA (AN) — Iran resumed enrichment of uranium to 20% on Monday in a move closer to weapons grade levels and further away from the 2015 nuclear deal, raising pressure on incoming U.S. President Joe Biden's administration.

Tehran said it notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of the developments. IAEA, the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, has monitored Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

"We resumed 20% enrichment, as legislated by our Parliament. IAEA has been duly notified," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted. "Our remedial action conforms fully with Para 36 of JCPOA, after years of non-compliance by several other JCPOA participants. Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL."

The Islamic Republic also inflamed geopolitical tensions by seizing the South Korean-flagged chemical tanker MT Hankuk Chemi near the Strait of Hormuz, ahead of planned talks with Seoul over US$7 billion in frozen Iranian assets in South Korea. Iran claimed the ship, on its way from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates, was polluting the Persian Gulf.

The incidents coincided with the anniversary of the U.S. drone strike on January 3, 2020 that killed a top Iranian general in Baghad, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite, expeditionary Quds Force. South Korea's foreign ministry confirmed 20 crew members from several Asian nations were detained by Iran, and its defense ministry said it was dispatching an anti-piracy destroyer with about 300 troops.

Iran announced on Saturday it informed IAEA of plans to again enrich uranium to 20%, halving the time it takes to reach weapons grade uranium and further violating the 2015 nuclear deal. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told Iranian television he wrote IAEA about the enrichment plans at Iran's underground Fordo nuclear facility, Iran's state-run IRNA news agency reported. "The AEOI will await necessary orders by President Hassan Rouhani to take due measure, Salehi underlined," said IRNA's news report.

That would mark a return to the enrichment level Iran achieved before its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Iran previously enriched uranium to 20%, which cuts in half the time it takes to get to 90% — the level needed for weapons grade uranium. Under the deal, Iran has been limited to enriching uranium to 3.67%, enough to fuel a commercial nuclear power plant.

Iran abided by the JCPOA until the United States withdrew from it in 2018. Tehran has violated the limits by increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium since 2019, says IAEA. The JCPOA capped Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile at 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride, or 202.8 kilograms of uranium.

Nuclear politics and tensions

With major fanfare at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva, Iran signed the landmark deal with the 15-nation U.N. Security Council’s five veto-wielding, permanent member nations — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany and the European Union. The deal, based on almost two years of formal negotiations, required Iran to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for lifting U.N.-brokered international sanctions.

After U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally reneged on the deal by pulling the United States out of it, the Trump administration began reimposing industrial and financial sanctions on Iran followed by U.S. bans on Iranian oil exports and banking. Iran's responsed by pressuring European nations for better terms in hopes of getting some economic relief from Washington’s reimposed sanctions.

Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov in Vienna confirmed on Twitter that IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi informed the U.N. nuclear agency's board of directors and the U.N. Security Council about Iran's uranium enrichment plans. IAEA later acknowledged receiving word from Iran of its plans. Iran's enhanced uranium enrichment comes just ahead of Trump's departure and Biden's swearing-in as U.S. president on January 20.

Salehi also said AEOI intends to produce uranium at the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant that is enriched to the 20% level to comply with a bill passed Iran's Parliament. The moves appeared intended to add to pressure both on Europe and on Biden's incoming administration. Biden campaigned on a promise to rejoin the nuclear deal.

IAEA reported at the start of 2014 that Iran had a stockpile of about 209 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium material in gas form, which, if further enriched to weapons-grade uranium, was not enough to produce a weapon; up to 250 kilograms would be needed for that purpose.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said it now has inspectors in Iran that are available around the clock and have access to the Fordo site, which is located deep inside a mountain about 90 kilometers southwest of Tehran. Iran's lawmakers have called for those inspectors to be expelled.

Iran announced two days after the 2020 drone strike it would no longer comply with most of the nonproliferation limits, but remained open to U.N.-led monitoring and negotiations with European signatories to the deal. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei renewed his promise of revenge at a meeting with Soleimani’s family last month, saying America will pay for Trump's drone strike.

American officials, worried Iran might retaliate, dispatched B-52 bombers to the region and a nuclear-powered submarine to the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon, however, said on Friday it sent an aircraft carrier away from the region as a signal to Iran it would prefer a military de-escalation of tensions.