Iran Ramps Up Uranium Enrichment, Seizes South Korean Tanker

A South Korean-flagged tanker vessel that was seized by Iran in Gulf, Iran January 4, 2021. (IRGC/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/via Reuters)

Iran seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker off its southern border on Monday just after announcing that it will ramp up its uranium enrichment to the highest levels since the 2015 nuclear deal, exacerbating tensions with the West just before President Trump leaves office.

The state terror sponsor announced Monday that it will boost uranium enrichment to 20 percent in its underground Fordo nuclear facility, just a small technical step away from the 90 percent enrichment required to build a nuclear weapon. The move appears meant to intimidate the U.S. as Joe Biden takes over the presidency and could complicate Biden’s future attempts at nuclear deescalation with Iran.

Hours later, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the Hankuk Chemi in the Strait of Hormuz at around 10 a.m., saying the South Korean ship committed “repeated violations of marine environmental laws.”

Iran denied it had seized the ship but griped that South Korea has frozen billions of dollars in Iranian assets.

“If anybody is to be called a hostage taker, it is the South Korean government that has taken our more than $7 billion hostage under a futile pretext,” Ali Rabiei, a spokesman for the Iranian government, said.

The ship’s seizure is “part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions,” the State Department said in a statement on the incident.

Iran has moved steadily away from the requirements of the Obama-era nuclear deal since May of 2018, when President Trump pulled out of the agreement, which was signed by the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China, and Russia. The agreement, which was the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, gave Tehran billions of dollars in relief from sanctions in exchange for a promise to temporarily curb its nuclear program.

In 2019, Iran said it would begin enriching uranium to upwards of 4.5 percent, exceeding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s 3.67 percent limit but still falling far short of the 90 percent required to construct a nuclear weapon. However, Iran warned at the time that it sees no impediments to increasing enrichment further as well flouting other stipulations of the deal.

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