Iran is planning to enrich uranium up to 20% purity at its underground Fordo nuclear facility "as soon as possible", the Islamic Republic's state media confirmed on Saturday, December 3. With such a high level of purity, Iran's controversial nuclear programme would be a technical step away from weapons-grade levels.
The announcement comes as US President-elect Joe Biden is about to assume office and has promised to return to the Obama-era nuclear deal as soon as he takes charge. The move puts yet more pressure on the nuclear deal which was abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018.
As per the IRNA news agency, Iranian authorities sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), informing the UN agency of the move, which got leaked overnight on Friday. Russia's representative to the UN nuclear watchdog is also reported to have acknowledged the letter. However, the move would be a violation of the nuclear deal because Tehran is not allowed to use the site as per the agreement.
"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 up to 20 percent at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant," the IAEA said in a statement. The White House is yet to issue a statement.
Iran’s decision comes after its parliament passed a bill aimed at increasing enrichment to pressure its western partners into providing sanctions relief. The move also coincides with the death anniversary of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani who was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad last year, which now has US officials worried about possible retaliation from Iran.
In addition to that, Ali Akbar Salehi, the US-educated head of the civilian atomic energy organisation of Iran, offered a military analogy to describe the agency’s preparedness to take the next step.
"We are like soldiers and our fingers are on the triggers," Salehi told Iranian state television. "The commander should command and we shoot. We are ready for this and will produce (20% enriched uranium) as soon as possible."
It is worth noting that Iran’s decision to hike enrichment to 20% a decade ago nearly stirred chaos in the Middle East, with Israel almost launching an airstrike targeting its nuclear facilities. The renewed decision to resume 20% enrichment could heightened tension in the region once again.