Iran began enriching uranium to weapon purity today, in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal, amid mounting fears that a South Korean oil tanker had been seized.
Tehran boldly announced that it has restarted uranium enrichment at its secret underground Fordow facility to 20 percent, in violation of the Obama-era deal that limits purity to 3.67 percent.
Meanwhile, a South Korean tanker was inexplicably docked in Bandar Abbas when US B-52 bombers flew over the Persian Gulf on the first anniversary of the assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani by Washington.
It comes after Donald Trump imposed sanctions last month and complicated any drafts Joe Biden may have had to fix the nuclear deal that Tehran has been violating for at least two years.
Government spokesman Ali Rabeie announced today, "A few minutes ago the process to produce 20% enriched uranium at the Fordow Enrichment Complex began."
The Fordow nuclear enrichment facility is located about 80 miles south of Tehran and is surrounded by a double ring of steel, watchtowers, and Russian-made S-300 missile systems
Satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed the MT Hankuk Chemi in front of Bandar Abbas on Monday afternoon without explanation. It had traveled from Saudi Arabia to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.
Trump has called the Obama-era JCPOA "the worst deal in history," and experts say Iran was insincere in making the deal and was never really interested in downgrading its Fordow nuclear facility (Photo: President Hassan Rouhani (left) and Trump (right)).
Nuclear weapons usually use 90 percent enriched uranium, but the 20 percent figure is significant because the element is classified in the highly enriched uranium (HEU) category, which means it can be used in bombs.
The move was one of many mentioned in a law passed by the Iranian parliament last month in response to the murder of the country's best nuclear scientist, which Tehran blamed Israel for.
The move is Iran's most recent breach of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which it violated in 2019 in response to Washington's withdrawal from the deal the year before and reintroduction of sanctions lifted under the deal Has.
Meanwhile, satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed the MT Hankuk Chemi in front of Bandar Abbas on Monday afternoon without explanation. It had traveled from Saudi Arabia to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.
The listed ship owner DM Shipping Co. Ltd. from Busan, South Korea, could not be reached immediately. Iran did not immediately recognize the ship's voyage.
The United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations, an information exchange monitored by the British Royal Navy in the region, has confirmed an "interaction" between a merchant ship and Iranian authorities.
As a result, the UKMTO said the merchant ship had made a "change of course" north into Iranian territorial waters.
Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, said authorities there were aware of the situation and were monitoring it.
Ambrey, a British security company, reported the incident as an apparent seizure. Dryad Global, another maritime security company, said the ship's crew consisted of 23 seafarers from Indonesia and Myanmar.
Iran's announcement coincides with the anniversary of the US drone attack that killed Revolutionary Guard General Soleimani in Baghdad last year.
In this attack, Iran later retaliated with a ballistic missile attack that injured dozen US troops in Iraq. Tehran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that night, killing all 176 people on board.
As the anniversary drew near, the US flew B-52 bombers over the region and sent a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.
On Thursday, seafarers spotted a limpets mine on a tanker in the Persian Gulf off Iraq near the Iranian border as they prepared to transfer fuel to another tanker owned by a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Nobody took responsibility for the mining industry, despite the fact that it came after a series of similar attacks in 2019 that the U.S. Navy blamed Iran for. Tehran denied being involved.
The facility is surrounded by a ring of steel and watchtowers that cut through the rough terrain. In the upper area of the picture you can see a road that branches off. One route leads to a building with a white roof and another to the underground bunker
An enlarged map shows the entrance through the boundary fence at the top left and further tunnel entrances at the top right in the mountain range
Tunnels provide access to the heart of the facility, which is filled with over 1,000 centrifuges for core production
Trump held an Oval Office meeting last month where he was prevented from launching strikes against Iran after a UN report showed massive surge in nuclear stocks in violation of the JCPOA.
Defense sources told the New York Times that Trump had asked about options for a bombing – likely against Natanz, Iran's main nuclear facility.
The Fordow facility is buried underground, and intelligence experts fear it could be impenetrable even to the USAF B-52 bombers armed with the 33,000-pound bunker buster.
Prior to today's announcement, Iran had already increased its enrichment rate to 4.5 percent, in violation of the nuclear deal with the UK, China, France, Germany and Russia.
The main objective of the deal was to extend the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material to make an atomic bomb for at least a year, from roughly two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.
Last month, Tehran pledged to "automatically" meet its obligations under the 2015 agreement if Biden lifts the sanctions imposed over the past two years.
Analysts had claimed that Trump's "maximum pressure" policy had put Iran under so much pressure that Biden could easily get them to agree to terms.
But the recent provocation could dash Democrats' hopes of Biden's triumphant return to the deal. They believe that this is the best way to stop Iran from building an atomic bomb.
Biden's allies argue that Trump's aggression has only made the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran more likely.
Trump's outgoing administration has put up a "wall of sanctions" against Iran for its appalling human rights record, support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah, and their nuclear activities.
Some believe this is an attempt to deliberately obstruct Biden, which makes him appear gentle as he lifts the sanctions and goes to the table with Iran.
The Fordow nuclear enrichment facility, located some 80 miles south of Tehran, has never been realigned as promised by the JCPOA.
Iranian nuclear scientists can quickly achieve weapon-grade nuclear enrichment in the facility's deep underground corridors.
The plant is buried in a mountain range that was originally under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. It is strongly fortified by a ring of steel fences with watchtowers every 80 feet.
Russian-made S-300 missile systems were installed four years ago and have become a focal point of activity as satellite imagery reveals increasing construction, according to the Institute of Science and International Security.
In this. File photo released on Wednesday, November 6, 2019 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. A forklift truck carries a bottle of uranium hexafluoride gas to inject the gas into centrifuges at Iran's Fordow nuclear power plant
Tunnels are used to access the cave, which is filled with more than 1,000 centrifuges used in core production.
It was built in 2002 under the "Amad Plan" – Iran's nuclear weapons program – but its discovery by Western intelligence forced Tehran to convert it into a power plant in 2009.
And in 2016 the JCPOA decided to convert it into a "nuclear, physics and technology center" but it is now a key asset in what the Trump administration calls "nuclear extortion."
Trump has called the Obama-era JCPOA "the worst deal in history," and according to the Institute for Science and International Security, "there is little reason to believe that Iran will ever intend to remodel the Fordow tunnel complex in a meaningful way Has."
US intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that was shut down in 2003. Iran denies ever having had one.
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