Iran resumes 20 per cent uranium enrichment, seizes South Korean tanker


Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in Persian Gulf waters and detained its crew containing nationals from South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Seoul confirmed the seizure of the chemical tanker by Iranian authorities in the waters off Oman, and demanded its immediate release.

The seizure comes at a time of tension between the two nations over Iranian funds frozen at South Korean banks due to US sanctions.

Several Iranian media outlets, including Iranian state TV, said the Guards navy captured the vessel for polluting the Gulf with chemicals.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency published pictures showing what it identified as Guards speed boats escorting the tanker HANKUK CHEMI, which it said was carrying 7,200 tonnes of ethanol.

It said the tanker was being held at Iran’s Bandar Abbas port city. The ship had 20 crew members, according to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.

The US Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet was aware and monitoring the situation, spokeswoman Rebecca Rebarich said in response to a Reuters query.

Iranian authorities have yet to comment on the incident, which comes ahead of an expected visit by South Korea’s deputy foreign minister to Tehran.

British firm Ambrey confirmed the DM Shipping Co-vessel had departed from the Petroleum Chemical Quay in Jubail, in Saudi Arabia, before the incident and had since been tracked inside Iranian territorial waters headed towards Bandar Abbas

In early 2019, Iran heightened tensions in the world’s busiest oil waterway by seizing British-flagged tanker Stena Impero two weeks after a British warship had intercepted an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar.

Iran resumes uranium enrichment

Iran told the International Atomic Energy Agency it was ramping up its nuclear programme.(Reuters: Shamil Zhumatov)

The latest incident comes on the same day as Iran announced it has has resumed 20 per cent uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility, breaching a 2015 nuclear pact with major powers and possibly complicating efforts by US President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the deal.

The news was met with criticism from others in the international community with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the criticism.

Mr Netanyahu said the move was aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

“Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons,” he said.

The enrichment decision, announced by Iran’s Government on Monday and the latest contravention of the accord, coincides with increasing tensions between the Middle Eastern country and the US in the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration.

Iran started violating the accord in 2019 in response to Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the pact in 2018 and the reimposition of US sanctions that had been lifted under the deal.

Military personnel stand near the flag-draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s death worsened relations between Iran and Israel.(AP: Iranian Defense Ministry)

The agreement’s main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from roughly two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.

The resumption of uranium enrichment was one of many items mentioned in a law passed by Iran’s Parliament last month in response to the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

Such moves by Iran could hinder attempts by the incoming Biden administration to re-enter the agreement.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was set to inform members on Monday about developments in Iran, the IAEA said, after the announcement by Tehran.

“Agency inspectors have been monitoring activities at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant in Iran. Based on their information, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi is expected to submit a report to IAEA Member States later today,” a spokesman for the nuclear watchdog said in an email.

‘Considerable departure from commitments’

In Brussels, an European Union Commission spokesperson said that the “move, if confirmed, would constitute a considerable departure from Iran’s commitments”.

“All participants are interested in keeping deal alive. The deal will be kept alive as long as all participants keep their commitments,” they said.

On January 1, the IAEA said Tehran had told the watchdog it planned to resume enrichment of up to 20 per cent at Fordow site, which is buried inside a mountain.

“The process of gas injection to centrifuges has started a few hours ago and the first product of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas will be available in a few hours,” government spokesman Ali Rabeie said.

Iran had earlier breached the deal’s 3.67 per cent limit on the purity to which it can enrich uranium, but it had only gone up to 4.5 per cent, well short of the 20 per cent the Government was aiming for now and of the 90 per cent needed to make weapons.

US intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons programme that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever having had one.

Reuters

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Iran starts 20 per cent uranium enrichment, seizes oil tanker in strait


Iran’s decision to begin enriching to 20 per cent purity a decade ago nearly triggered an Israeli strike targeting its nuclear facilities, tensions that only abated with the 2015 atomic deal. A resumption of 20 per cent enrichment could see that brinksmanship return as that level of purity is only a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 per cent.

From Israel, which has its own undeclared nuclear weapons program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticised Iran’s enrichment decision, saying it “cannot be explained in any way other than the continuation of realising its goal to develop a military nuclear program”.

“Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon,” he added.

Tehran has long maintained its nuclear program is peaceful. The US State Department says that as late as last year, it “continued to assess that Iran is not currently engaged in key activities associated with the design and development of a nuclear weapon”.

Iran’s move comes after its parliament passed a bill, later approved by a constitutional watchdog, aimed at hiking enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief. It also serves as pressure ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he is willing to re-enter the nuclear deal.

Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency last week that it planned to take the step. The IAEA said on Monday that “agency inspectors have been monitoring activities” at Fordo and that its director-general Rafael Mariano Grossi planned to issue a report to member nations of the UN organisation later in the day.

Meanwhile, satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed the MT Hankuk Chemi off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas on Monday afternoon, with no explanation as to the abrupt change in the vessel’s path. It had been travelling from a petrochemicals facility in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. The vessel had been carrying an unknown chemical shipment, according to data-analysis firm Refinitiv.

Calls to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry and the ship’s listed owner, DM Shipping Co Ltd of Busan, South Korea, were not immediately answered after business hours on Monday. Iran did not acknowledge the vessel’s location.

The MT Hankuk Chemi was stopped by Iranian authorities over alleged “oil pollution” in the Persian Gulf. Credit:Tasnim News Agency via AP

Iran’s semi-official news agencies reported that authorities had arrested the crew members on the seized vessel, noting that they were citizens of Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam. The Iranian report did not say how many sailors were on board, but Dryad Global, a maritime security firm, earlier said the ship had 23 sailors from Indonesia and Myanmar. The vessel had been carrying 7,200 tons of ethanol, according to state TV-affiliated news sites.

The United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations, an information exchange overseen by the British royal navy in the region, acknowledged an “interaction” between a merchant vessel and Iranian authorities in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20 per cent of all the world’s oil passes. As a result, the merchant vessel made an “alteration of course” north into Iran’s territorial waters, the UKMTO said.

Over the past months Iran has sought to escalate pressure on South Korea to unlock some $US7 billion ($9.07 billion) in frozen assets from oil sales earned before the Trump administration tightened sanctions on the country’s oil exports.

Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, said authorities there were aware and monitoring the situation.

Iran’s announcement coincides with the anniversary of the US drone strike killing Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last year. Iran responded by launching a ballistic missiles at US bases in Iraq, injuring dozens of US troops. Tehran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that night, killing all 176 people on board.

As the anniversary approached and fears grew of possible Iranian retaliation, the US dispatched B-52 bombers over the region and ordered a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.

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In a further sign of US-Iran tension, acting US defence secretary Christopher Miller announced late on Sunday that he changed his mind about sending the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz home from the Middle East and instead will keep the vessel on duty. He cited Iranian threats against President Trump and other US government officials as the reason for the redeployment, without elaborating.

Last week, sailors discovered a limpet mine stuck on a tanker in the Persian Gulf off Iraq near the Iranian border as it prepared to transfer fuel to another tanker owned by a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. No one has claimed responsibility for the mining, though it comes after a series of similar attacks in 2019 near the Strait of Hormuz that the US Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied involvement.

In November, an Iranian scientist who founded the country’s military nuclear program two decades earlier was killed in an attack that Tehran blames on Israel.

AP

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Iran says it begins 20% uranium enrichment amid US tensions


TEHRAN, Iran – Iran said on Monday it has begun enriching uranium up to 20% at an underground nuclear facility, a short, technical step to weapons-grade levels of 90% amid escalating tensions with the U.S.

Iranian state television quoted spokesman Ali Rabiei as saying that President Hassan Rouhani has given the order for the move at the Fordo facility.

Iran’s decision to begin enriching to 20% a decade ago nearly brought an Israeli strike targeting its nuclear facilities, tensions that only abated with the 2015 atomic deal. A resumption of 20% enrichment could see that brinksmanship return.

The move comes after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. unilaterally from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018. In the time since, there have been a series of escalating incidents between the two countries.

Iran’s decision comes after its parliament passed a bill, later approved by a constitutional watchdog, aimed at hiking enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief. It also serves as pressure ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he is willing to re-enter the nuclear deal.

Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency last week that it planned to take the step.

  • This Dec. 11, 2020, satellite photo by Maxar Technologies shows construction at Iran's Fordo nuclear facility. Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the U.S. over its atomic program, satellite photos obtained Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, by The Associated Press show.

Shielded by the mountains, Fordo is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead U.S. officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.

The 2015 deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. The accord also called for Fordo to be turned into a research-and-development facility.

Under Iran’s former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran began enrichment at the 20% level. Israel, which has its own undeclared nuclear weapons program, feared Tehran was building an atomic bomb.

After the discovery of Fordo, the U.S. worked on so-called “bunker buster” bombs designed to strike such facilities. As Israel threatened at one point to bomb Iranian nuclear sites like Fordo, U.S. officials reportedly showed them a video of a bunker-buster bomb destroying a mock-up of Fordo in America’s southwestern desert.

Israel, which under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to criticize Iran’s nuclear program, offered no immediate comment Saturday.

Up to now, Iran had enriched uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.

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‘Playful’ Lion Cub Can’t Get Enough of Enrichment Ball at Denver Zoo



Denver Zoo’s 11-thirty day period-aged African lion cub Tatu designed the most of a ball through a modern enrichment session, footage shared by the zoo on June 28 demonstrates. The movie shows a curious Tatu clawing at and participating in with a big ball in his enclosure at the zoo’s Predator Ridge Encounter. Denver Zoo explained Tatu, who celebrates his very first birthday on July 25, is nonetheless a “super playful cub” who “doesn’t enable the rain sluggish him down.” The zoo explained, “Lions are the most energetic in cooler weather conditions, specifically as this rain arrived following a streak of warm days.” Credit: Denver Zoo by way of Storyful



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