Iran confirmed it seized a South Korean oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz the same day state media announced the country increased its uranium enrichment up to 20% at one of its underground facilities, further escalating tensions with the West.
Tehran cited “oil pollution” concerns when it confirmed the MT Hankuk Chemi oil tanker was seized, according to the Associated Press — though Iran previously said a South Korean ambassador was expected to arrive in Tehran to negotiate the release of billions of dollars in assets frozen in Seoul.
Iran has not acknowledged the vessel’s location.
Naval Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich told the Associated Press that the United States was “aware” of the situation and was monitoring.
The move to increase uranium enrichment at Iran’s underground Fordo facility is the biggest break with the 2015 nuclear deal since President Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018 and is “only a technical step” away from weapons-grade enrichment.
“A few minutes ago, the process of producing enriched uranium to 20% purity has begun. And the first product of UF6 enriched uranium will be produced in a few hours,” Tehran spokesman Ali Rabiei said, according to Tasnim News, a private news agency with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
In December, Iran passed a bill to increase nuclear enrichment if the incoming Biden administration failed to lift sanctions against the Middle Eastern country by February. Before the country’s legislative watchdog approved the bill, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed opposition, saying it would be “harmful” to restoring diplomatic relations with the U.S.
According to Rabiei, as quoted in state television, Rouhani gave the order to increase enrichment at the Fordo facility.
The last time Iran moved to enrich uranium at 20%, an Israeli missile strike targeted its nuclear facilities, inciting a decade of tensions that persisted until Iran entered the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the U.S.
Iran has gradually relaxed its compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal after Trump pulled out and imposed a “maximum pressure” campaign of crippling economic sanctions. Biden has said he would work to reenter the deal and ease sanctions if Iran went back to “strict compliance with the nuclear deal.”
Both moves coincide with the one-year anniversary of a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraq’s Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, who headed the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces.