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Iran Resumes Uranium 20% Enrichment Violating Nuclear Deal

Iran says it has resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity, in its most significant breach yet of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Government spokesman Ali Rabiei told state media the process had started at the underground Fordo plant near Qom.

Enriched uranium can be used to make reactor fuel but also nuclear bombs. Weapons-grade uranium is 90% purity. Iran, which insists that its nuclear programme is peaceful, has rolled back a number of commitments under the deal.

It has said it is retaliating for the US economic sanctions that were reinstated by President Donald Trump when he abandoned the accord in 2018. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran’s decision “can’t be explained in any way except as continued realisation of its intention to develop a military nuclear programme”. “Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons,” he added.

European Union spokesman Peter Stano said Iran’s move, if confirmed, would constitute a “considerable departure” from its commitments under the nuclear deal and have “serious nuclear non-proliferation implications”.

In a separate development, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said they had seized a South Korean-flagged chemical tanker in the Gulf “due to the repeated infringement of maritime environmental laws”.

South Korea’s foreign ministry demanded its immediate release and said South Korean forces stationed in the Strait of Hormuz had been dispatched to the area. Mr Rabiei told the Irna news agency on Monday that the process of enriching uranium to 20% had started “a couple of hours ago” at Fordo.

President Hassan Rouhani had ordered the move because he was “bound” by a new law requiring the production and storage of at least 120kg (265lbs) of 20%-enriched uranium annually for peaceful purposes, he said.

Iran’s parliament passed the law following the assassination in late November of the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Iranian leaders blamed on Israel.

A spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said its inspectors were monitoring activities at Fordo on Monday. “Based on their information, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi is expected to submit a report to IAEA member states later today,” he added. Before the nuclear deal, Iran had a sufficient amount of 20%-enriched uranium and number of centrifuges that its “break-out time” was estimated to be about two to three months.

The agreement slowed the “break-out time” to at least a year.