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Iran plans 20 percent uranium enrichment in rebuke of nuclear deal

Iran plans 20 percent uranium enrichment in rebuke of nuclear deal
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Iran on Saturday announced that it intends to enrich its uranium to up to 20 percent at its Fordow facility amid heightening tensions with the U.S. in the waning days of the Trump administration.

Iranian state television confirmed that Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the civilian Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) informing it of Tehran’s decision to enrich its uranium just a short step away from weapons-grade levels.

The IAEA also confirmed to The Hill that it had received the letter and maintained that it would keep a close eye on any developments at the underground Fordow facility.

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“Iran has informed the agency that in order to comply with a legal act recently passed by the country’s parliament, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran intends to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) up to 20 percent at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. Iran’s letter to the agency, dated [Dec. 31, 2020] did not say when this enrichment activity would take place,” the agency said.

“The agency has inspectors present in Iran on a 24/7 basis and they have regular access to Fordow," it added. "In line with standard safeguards practice, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi will promptly report any relevant developments to IAEA Member States, as he did [Friday] regarding Iran’s letter.”

Iran’s decision to further enrich its uranium comes amid escalating friction with Washington and concerns that Tehran is mulling some kind of military action in the Middle East in the coming days.

Two Air Force B-52 Stratofortresses flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to the Persian Gulf this week in an attempt to deliver “a clear deterrent message to anyone who intends to do harm to Americans or American interests,” according to U.S. Central Command. The flights marked the third such mission in 45 days.

U.S. Central Command did not identify Iran as the source of its concerns, but speculation has bubbled up that Tehran could be planning some kind of strike via its proxy forces across the region to commemorate the first anniversary of the Jan. 3 killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general, in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.

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A senior U.S. military official told Fox News that a U.S. intelligence report suggests that Iran wants to "avenge that killing,” and has “potential for other more complex attacks” against Americans in Iraq.

"We're seeing planning for, particularly in Iraq, for complex attacks that require Iranian assistance in order to be pulled off," the official said.

President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE withdrew the U.S. from the Obama-era nuclear pact with Iran in 2018. The pact imposed limits on Tehran’s ability to enrich its uranium in exchange for sanctions relief. 

Democrats widely hailed the deal as an effective tool in curbing Iran’s nuclear program, but Trump and Republicans have long bashed it as insufficient because it does not cover Tehran’s missile program or relationship with an array of proxy forces across the Middle East that have fought against U.S. troops.

Iran is already in violation of the agreement, enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, which is above the deal’s 3.67 percent limit. However, jumping to 20 percent would be a marked escalation given that uranium enriched to that level could easily be morphed into weapons-grade material. 

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The announcement Saturday may be an attempt to pressure President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE — a warning that Tehran could further pursue its enrichment if he does not follow through on his promise of restarting nuclear deal negotiations.

The Fordow facility was first revealed in 2009, alarming international experts that the site, which is armed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications, could have military purposes.

The U.S. military began crafting “bunker buster” bombs designed to destroy such facilities after the revelation and, with Israel, launched a complex cyberattack on nuclear facilities in 2010 after Tehran first decided to enrich uranium to 20 percent.