Iran began enriching uranium up to 20 percent at an underground facility and seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the main Strait of Hormuz, further escalating Middle East tensions between Tehran and the West.
As concerns emerged that Tehran had confiscated the MT Hankuk Chemi, the Fordo enrichment announcement arrived.
Iran subsequently announced the seizure and said the “oil pollution” of the vessel was the cause for this action.
However, hours earlier, Tehran had said that it was expected that a South Korean diplomat would visit Seoul in the coming days to discuss the release of billions of dollars in frozen assets.
The two events occurred in the final days of President Donald Trump’s term amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States.
During Mr. Trump’s term, the U.S. leader unilaterally withdrew from the 2018 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, causing a months-long sequence of tense episodes that gradually strained ties between the countries.
Spokesman Ali Rabiei quoted Iranian state television as saying that President Hassan Rouhani had issued the order to move to the Fordo facility.
A decade ago, Iran’s decision to start enrichment to 20% purity almost caused an Israeli assault on its nuclear facilities, a conflict that only eased with the 2015 nuclear deal.
A 20 percent enrichment resumption could trigger the brinkmanship to return, as that degree of purity is just a technical step away from a 90 percent weapon-grade.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking from Israel, which has its own undeclared nuclear weapons program, criticized Iran’s decision to enrich, saying it “cannot be explained in any other way than by continuing to achieve its goal of developing a military nuclear program.”
He added, “Israel will not allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon,”
Tehran has stated for a long time that its nuclear programme is peaceful.
“As recently as last year, the U.S. State Department says it concluded that Iran “is not currently engaged in core activities associated with the design and production of a nuclear weapon.
The step by Iran comes after the passage of a bill by the Iranian parliament, later approved by a constitutional review board, aimed at increasing enrichment to pressure Europe to ease sanctions.
It also acts as leverage ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, who has said he is willing to rejoin the nuclear deal.
Last week, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it was planning on taking that measure.
The IAEA said the inspectors of the organization “have been monitoring activities at Fordo” and that its director general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, intended to report to the member states of the United Nations agency later that day.
Meanwhile, on Monday afternoon, MarineTraffic.com satellite data showed the MT Hankuk Chemi off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, with no reason for the sudden change in the direction of the vessel.
It was en route to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates from a petrochemical plant in Jubail, Saudi Arabia.
The ship was carrying an undisclosed chemical cargo, according to data analysis company Refinitiv.
Calls to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Korea and the listed owner of the ship, DM Shipping Co. Ltd. of Busan, South Korea, were not returned immediately after hours on Monday.
Iran didn’t confirm the location of the ship.
Iran’s semi-official news agencies announced that the authorities had arrested members of the crew of the seized ship and that they were citizens of Korea, Indonesia, Burma and Vietnam.
The Iranian report did not state how many seamen were on board, but Dryad Global, a maritime security company, had previously suggested that the ship had 23 Indonesian and Burmese seamen.
7,200 tons of ethanol were carried by the ship, state TV news sites reported.
An exchange of information monitored by the Royal Navy in the area, the United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations, reported a “interaction” between a merchant ship and the Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20 percent of the world’s oil flows.
As a consequence, the merchant ship had a ship,