DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran started enriching uranium Monday to ranges unseen since its 2015 nuclear cope with world powers and in addition seized a South Korean-flagged tanker close to the essential Strait of Hormuz, a double-barreled problem to the West that additional raised Mideast tensions.

Each selections appeared aimed toward growing Tehran’s leverage within the waning days in workplace for President Donald Trump, whose unilateral withdrawal from the atomic accord in 2018 started a collection of escalating incidents.

Rising enrichment at its underground Fordo facility places Tehran a technical step away from weapons-grade ranges of 90%, whereas additionally pressuring President-elect Joe Biden to shortly negotiate. Iran’s seizure of the MT Hankuk Chemi comes as a South Korean diplomat was on account of journey to the Islamic Republic to debate the discharge of billions of {dollars} in Iranian property frozen in Seoul.

Iranian Overseas Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appeared to acknowledge Tehran’s curiosity in leveraging the scenario in a tweet about its nuclear enrichment.

“Our measures are absolutely reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL,” he wrote.

At Fordo, Iranian nuclear scientists beneath the watch of Worldwide Atomic Power Company inspectors loaded centrifuges with over 130 kilograms (285 kilos) of low-enriched uranium to be spun as much as 20%, mentioned Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s everlasting consultant to the U.N. atomic company.

The IAEA later described the Fordo setup as three units of two interconnected cascades, comprised of 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges — Iran’s first-generation centrifuges. A cascade is a gaggle of centrifuges working collectively to extra shortly enrich uranium.

Iranian state tv quoted authorities spokesman Ali Rabiei as saying that President Hassan Rouhani had given the order to start the manufacturing. It got here after its parliament handed a invoice, later accredited by a constitutional watchdog, aimed toward growing enrichment to stress Europe into offering sanctions reduction.

The U.S. State Division criticized Iran’s transfer as a “clear try to extend its marketing campaign of nuclear extortion.”

“The USA and the remainder of the worldwide group will assess Iran’s actions,” the State Division mentioned. “We now have confidence that the IAEA will monitor and report on any new Iranian nuclear actions.”

Iran knowledgeable the IAEA of its plans to extend enrichment to 20% final week.

Iran’s choice to start enriching to 20% purity a decade in the past practically triggered an Israeli strike focusing on its nuclear services, tensions that solely abated with the 2015 atomic deal, which noticed Iran restrict its enrichment in change for the lifting of financial sanctions.

A resumption of 20% enrichment might see that brinksmanship return. Already, a November assault that Tehran blames on Israel killed an Iranian scientist who based the nation’s navy nuclear program twenty years earlier.

From Israel, which has its personal undeclared nuclear weapons program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Iran’s enrichment choice, saying it “can’t be defined in any method aside from the continuation of realizing its objective to develop a navy nuclear program.”

“Israel is not going to permit Iran to fabricate a nuclear weapon,” he added.

Tehran has lengthy maintained its nuclear program is peaceable. The U.S. State Division says that as late as final 12 months, it “continued to evaluate that Iran shouldn’t be at present engaged in key actions related to the design and growth of a nuclear weapon.” That mirrors earlier stories by U.S. intelligence companies and the IAEA, although consultants warn that Iran at present has sufficient low-enriched uranium for at the least two nuclear weapons if it selected to pursue them.

In the meantime, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard seized the MT Hankuk Chemi, with photographs later launched exhibiting its vessels alongside the tanker. Satellite tv for pc knowledge from MarineTraffic.com confirmed the tanker off the Iranian port metropolis of Bandar Abbas on Monday.

The ship had been touring from a petrochemicals facility in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah within the United Arab Emirates. The vessel carries a chemical cargo together with methanol, in keeping with data-analysis agency Refinitiv.

Iran alleged it seized the vessel over it allegedly polluting the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, the gulf’s slender mouth by which 20% of the world’s oil passes.

The U.S. State Division referred to as for the tanker’s rapid launch, accusing Iran of threatening “navigational rights and freedoms” within the Persian Gulf with the intention to “extort the worldwide group into relieving the stress of sanctions.”

Calls to the ship’s listed proprietor, DM Delivery Co. Ltd. of Busan, South Korea, weren’t answered after enterprise hours Monday. The South Korean information company Yonhap quoted an nameless firm official denying the Iranian declare the ship polluted the water.

The captain “requested why now we have to go and be examined and didn’t get any reply,” Yonhap quoted the official as saying.

In previous months Iran has sought to escalate stress on South Korea to unlock some $7 billion in frozen property from oil gross sales earned earlier than the Trump administration tightened sanctions on the nation’s oil exports. The top of Iran’s central financial institution just lately introduced that the nation was searching for to make use of funds tied up in a South Korean financial institution to buy coronavirus vaccines by COVAX, a world program designed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to collaborating international locations.

South Korea’s Overseas Ministry demanded the ship’s launch, saying in a press release that its crew was protected. The crew included sailors from Indonesia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, in keeping with the Guard. South Korea’s Protection Ministry mentioned it additionally was sending its anti-piracy unit close to the Strait of Hormuz, which is a 4,400-ton-class destroyer with about 300 troops.

Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based fifth Fleet, mentioned authorities had been monitoring the scenario. Final 12 months, Iran equally seized a British-flagged oil tanker and held it for months after one in all its tankers was held off Gibraltar.

The incidents coincide with the anniversary of the U.S. drone strike killing Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Iran responded by launching ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, injuring dozens of U.S. troops. Tehran additionally by accident shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that night time, killing all 176 folks on board.

Because the anniversary approached and fears grew of potential Iranian retaliation, the U.S. dispatched B-52 bombers over the area and ordered a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.

Performing U.S. Protection Secretary Christopher Miller mentioned late Sunday that he modified his thoughts about sending the plane service USS Nimitz house from the Center East and as a substitute will hold the vessel on responsibility. He cited Iranian threats towards Trump and different U.S. authorities officers as the rationale for the redeployment, with out elaborating.

Final week, sailors found a limpet mine caught on a tanker within the Persian Gulf off Iraq close to the Iranian border because it ready to switch gas to a different tanker owned by an organization traded on the New York Inventory Change. Nobody has claimed duty for the mining, although it comes after a collection of comparable assaults in 2019 close to the Strait of Hormuz that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied involvement.

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Related Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel, Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Robert Burns and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.

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