January 15th, 2021

South Korean-flagged tanker in Iranian waters, feared seized


By The Associated Press on January 4, 2021.

This Dec. 11, 2020, satellite photo by Maxar Technologies shows construction at Iran's Fordo nuclear facility. Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the U.S. over its atomic program, satellite photos obtained Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, by The Associated Press show. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran – A South Korean-flagged tanker bound for the United Arab Emirates has instead gone into Iranian territorial waters, with a security firm fearing the vessel has been seized.

Satellite data from MarineTraffic.com showed the MT Hankuk Chemi off Bandar Abbas on Monday afternoon without explanation.

It had been travelling from Saudi Arabia to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.

The ship’s owners could not be immediately reached. Iran did not immediately acknowledge the vessel’s travel.

The United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations, an information exchange overseen by the British royal navy in the region, acknowledged an “interaction” between a merchant vessel and Iranian authorities.

As a result, the UKMTO said the merchant vessel made an “alteration of course” north into Iran’s territorial waters.

Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, said authorities there were aware and monitoring the situation.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

Iran said on Monday it has begun enriching uranium up to 20% at an underground nuclear facility, a short, technical step to weapons-grade levels of 90% amid escalating tensions with the U.S.

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

Iran’s decision to begin enriching to 20% a decade ago nearly brought 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.

The move comes after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. unilaterally from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018. In the time since, there have been a series of escalating incidents between the two countries.

Iran’s decision comes after its parliament passed a bill, later approved by a constitutional watchdog, aimed at hiking enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief. It also serves as pressure ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he is willing to re-enter the nuclear deal.

Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency last week that it planned to take the step.

Shielded by the mountains, Fordo is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead U.S. officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.

The 2015 deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. The accord also called for Fordo to be turned into a research-and-development facility.

Under Iran’s former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran began enrichment at the 20% level. Israel, which has its own undeclared nuclear weapons program, feared Tehran was building an atomic bomb.

After the discovery of Fordo, the U.S. worked on so-called “bunker buster” bombs designed to strike such facilities. As Israel threatened at one point to bomb Iranian nuclear sites like Fordo, U.S. officials reportedly showed them a video of a bunker-buster bomb destroying a mock-up of Fordo in America’s southwestern desert.

Israel, which under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to criticize Iran’s nuclear program, offered no immediate comment Saturday.

Up to now, Iran had enriched uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.

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