DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran began enriching uranium Monday to levels unseen since its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and also seized a South Korean-flagged tanker near the crucial Strait of Hormuz, a double-barreled challenge to the West that further raised Mideast tensions.
Both decisions appeared aimed at increasing Tehran's leverage in the waning days in office for President Donald Trump, whose unilateral withdrawal from the atomic accord in 2018 began a series of escalating incidents.
Increasing enrichment at its underground Fordo facility puts Tehran a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, while also pressuring President-elect Joe Biden to quickly negotiate. Iran's seizure of the MT Hankuk Chemi comes as a South Korean diplomat was due to travel to the Islamic Republic to discuss the release of billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in Seoul.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed to acknowledge Tehran's interest in leveraging the situation in a tweet about its nuclear enrichment.
"Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL," he wrote.
At Fordo, Iranian nuclear scientists under the watch of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors loaded centrifuges with more than 285 pounds of low-enriched uranium to be spun up to 20 percent, said Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran's permanent representative to the U.N. atomic agency.
The IAEA later described the Fordo setup as three sets of two interconnected cascades, comprised of 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges — Iran's first-generation centrifuges. A cascade is a group of centrifuges working together to more quickly enrich uranium.
Iranian state television quoted government spokesman Ali Rabiei as saying President Hassan Rouhani had given the order to begin the production. It came after its parliament passed a bill, later approved by a constitutional watchdog, aimed at increasing enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief.
The U.S. State Department criticized Iran's move as a "clear attempt to increase its campaign of nuclear extortion."
"The United States and the rest of the international community will assess Iran's actions," the State Department said. "We have confidence that the IAEA will monitor and report on any new Iranian nuclear activities."
Iran informed the IAEA of its plans to increase enrichment to 20 percent last week.
Iran's decision to begin enriching to 20 percent purity a decade ago nearly triggered an Israeli strike targeting its nuclear facilities, tensions that only abated with the 2015 atomic deal, which saw Iran limit its enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
A resumption of 20 percent enrichment could see that brinksmanship return. Already, a November attack that Tehran blames on Israel killed an Iranian scientist who founded the country's military nuclear program two decades earlier.
From Israel, which has its own undeclared nuclear weapons program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Iran's enrichment decision, saying it "cannot be explained in any way other than the continuation of realizing 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 U.S. State Department said 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."
That mirrors previous reports by U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA, though experts warn Iran currently has enough low-enriched uranium for at least two nuclear weapons if it chose to pursue them.
Meanwhile, Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard seized the MT Hankuk Chemi, with photos later released showing its vessels alongside the tanker. Satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed the tanker Monday off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas.
The ship had been traveling from a petrochemicals facility in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates. The vessel carries a chemical shipment including methanol, according to data-analysis firm Refinitiv.
Iran alleged it seized the vessel over it allegedly polluting the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, the gulf's narrow mouth through which 20 percent of the world's oil passes.
The U.S. State Department called for the tanker's immediate release, accusing Iran of threatening "navigational rights and freedoms" in the Persian Gulf in order to "extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions."
Calls to the ship's listed owner, DM Shipping Co. Ltd. of Busan, South Korea, were not answered after business hours Monday. The South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted an anonymous company official denying the Iranian claim the ship polluted the water.