Iran says it resumes 20 percent uranium enrichment at nuclear facility

TEHRAN — Iran has resumed enriching uranium up to 20 percent in the country’s biggest breach yet of the landmark nuclear deal with world powers, government spokesperson Ali Rabiee told state-run Mehr News Agency on Monday.

The boost in enrichment levels puts it a technical step away from enriching at 90 percent, the level needed to produce a nuclear warhead.

Before Monday’s announcement, Iran was enriching uranium at around 4.5 percent, in violation of the nuclear pact but at a significantly lower level.

President Hassan Rouhani visits a nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran.Mohammad Berno / AP file

The news comes amid simmering tensions between the United States and Iran in the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, setting off a series of escalating incidents that culminated in the killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq on Jan. 3 last year.

The announcement came the day after the one year anniversary of Soleimani’s killing that saw thousands take to the streets to protest his death in Iraq on Sunday.

According to officials, the enrichment is being carried out at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility, which is hidden deep inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom. Under the terms of Iran’s nuclear deal, Tehran is only allowed to enrich uranium at around 3.5 percent and no enrichment is allowed at the Fordo plant.

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The deal stipulates that in exchange for agreeing to limit its uranium enrichment, world powers would grant Iran sanctions relief.

Since the United States pulled out of the pact in May 2018 and re-imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, Tehran has steadily breached its own commitments to the agreement, prompting alarm among the other five parties to the deal: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China.

Iran’s decision comes after parliament passed a bill aimed at hiking enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief.

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Tehran has long denied seeking to develop a nuclear weapon and says doing so would be against Islam.

The hike also serves as pressure on President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration. Biden, who was vice president when the United States entered the nuclear deal under President Barack Obama in 2015, has said he is willing to return to the pact if Iran abides by the deal and has suggested building on the agreement.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani last month dampened hopes that it would be possible to extend the scope of the deal, saying the country’s ballistic missile program and its regional influence were non-negotiable.

“There is one JCPOA that has been negotiated and agreed — either everyone commits to it or they don’t,” he said, referring to the 2015 nuclear accord that is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement that inspectors have been monitoring activities at the Fordo site in Iran and that based on their information, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi is expected to submit a report to IAEA Member States later Monday.

Ali Arouzi reported from Tehran; Saphora Smith reported from London.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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