INTERNATIONAL

Iran steps up uranium enrichment, seizes tanker

Iran on Monday began enriching uranium up to 20% at an underground facility and seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker in the crucial Strait of Hormuz, further escalating tensions in West Asia between Tehran and the West.

The announcement of enrichment at Fordo came as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized MT Hankuk Chemi, alleging the vessel’s “oil pollution” sparked the move. However, hours earlier, Tehran said a South Korean diplomat was expected to visit in the coming days to negotiate the release of billions of dollars in its assets now frozen in Seoul.

The dual incidents come amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s term in office. During Mr. Trump’s tenure, the U.S. leader unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 and set off months of tense episodes that increasingly strained relations between the countries.

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

Iran’s decision to begin enriching to 20% 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% enrichment could see that brinksmanship return as that level of purity is only a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu criticised Iran’s enrichment decision.