Iran steps up nuclear enrichment to 20% as U.S. keeps carrier in Gulf

Iran started the process of enriching uranium to 20 per cent, a key acceleration in its nuclear program and another breach of the 2015 deal with world powers, hours after brewing tensions led the U.S. to turn around an aircraft carrier set to leave the Persian Gulf.

The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency was informed on Saturday by Tehran that authorities might resume efforts to acquire the fissile material at the Fordow facility after legislation requiring the measure had been approved.

Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said that President Hassan Rouhani finally ordered the move early Monday. Overnight, the U.S. delayed withdrawing the USS Nimitz from the Persian Gulf, citing “recent threats” from Iran’s leaders against outgoing President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration abandoned the 2015 accord and imposed sweeping sanctions as it sought to weaken Iran and force it back to the negotiating table. Concerns of a conflict in the final weeks before Joe Biden takes over have mounted, especially around the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist and this week’s first anniversary of the killing of the country’s leading general.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an opponent of efforts to limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activity in return for sanctions relief, said enriching uranium to 20 per cent showed Iran’s true intentions.

“Iran’s decision to continue violating its commitments, to raise the enrichment level and advance the industrial ability to enrich uranium underground, cannot be explained in any way except as the continued realization of its intention to develop a military nuclear program,” he said. “Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons.”

Iran blamed Israel and the U.S. for November’s killing of atomic scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

The Jan. 3 anniversary of General Qassem Soleimani’s assassination passed without incident or a major escalation from either side, yet Monday’s enrichment decision still comes at a sensitive time.

Biden, who takes office in two weeks, has vowed to return to the nuclear deal if Iran does too, but any major flare up now could harm those efforts.

Iran has long denied any military dimension to its nuclear program and insists that its atomic activities are for civilian purposes. It has continued to allow stringent UN inspections.

Even when Iran does gain a stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium, it would still be a long way from accumulating all the components required for a weapon.

Uranium must be enriched to 90 per cent to build warheads, though lesser levels would be considered significant steps toward that capability. Iran started breaching enrichment levels in July 2019 in response to Trump leaving the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions.

At that time, it announced that enrichment levels had reached 4.5 per cent. The current terms of the nuclear deal limit Iran to producing uranium with a 3.67 per cent enrichment level.

Iran first acquired 20 per cent enriched uranium during the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but abandoned the process in 2013, following a preliminary nuclear agreement with world powers, including the U.S., Russia, China and the European Union.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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