Tuesday, September 27, 2022

US, Iran in tense maritime incident; Tehran prepares new centrifuges

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates ( Associated Press) – A US Navy warship has warned Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats to stop approaching it directly during a tense encounter in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

Monday’s incident involved the Guards and the Navy, as tensions mount over stalled talks over Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and Tehran enriches uranium more than ever in the face of declining weapons levels internationally.

Meanwhile, the UN nuclear watchdog said amid the standoff Iran now plans to enrich uranium through a second set of advanced centrifuges at its underground Fordo facility.

The Cyclone-class patrol ship USS Sirocco and the Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport USNS Choctaw County found themselves in close encounter with three Iranian fast boats while approaching the Strait of Hormuz to enter the Persian Gulf, the Navy said.

In a video released by the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, a high-speed guard is seen turning heads towards Boghammer Sirocco. Sirocco repeatedly blows his horn on Boghammer, which goes away as soon as it closes. The flare can be heard, but not seen, as Boghammer passes through Sirocco, over which the Iranian flag flies.

The Navy said Boghammer came within 50 yards (45 m) of Sirocco, increasing the risk of the ships colliding with each other. The Navy said that overall the encounter lasted for about an hour.

“The Guard’s actions do not meet international standards for professional or safe maritime behavior, which increases the risk of miscalculations and collisions,” the Navy said.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident in the strategic waterway – a fifth of all traded oil passes through the strait.

The Navy separately told the Associated Press that it was the second so-called “unsafe and unprofessional” incident with Iran in recent months.

The Navy said that on March 4, three Guard ships had a tense encounter with Navy and US Coast Guard ships lasting more than two hours as they exited the Persian Gulf through the strait. In that incident, the guard’s catamaran Shahid Nazeri came within 25 yards (22 m) of USCGC Robert Goldman, the Navy said.

“Two cutters from the US Coast Guard issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and deployed warning flares,” the Navy said.

The Navy did not elaborate on why it had not announced a previous incident, especially as a larger vessel came even closer to a US warship. However, an agreement in Vienna between Iran and world powers on restoring the nuclear deal was possible before the breakdown of talks.

Iran and world powers agreed to a nuclear deal in 2015, with Tehran substantially limiting its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the accord, raising tensions in the wider Middle East and sparking a series of attacks and incidents.

Negotiations in Vienna about reviving the deal have been on a “pause” since March. Since the collapse of the deal, Iran has been running advanced centrifuges and has a rapidly growing stockpile of enriched uranium. Earlier this month also Iran removed 27 surveillance cameras of the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations. The head of the agency warned it could deal a “fatal blow” to the nuclear deal.

On Tuesday, the IAEA said its inspectors verified that Iran was preparing to enrich uranium through a new cascade of 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its underground Fordo facility. There is already a cascade of IR-6s operating in Iran in Fordo, near the holy Shiite city of Qom, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran. They enrich up to 20% purity.

The IAEA said Iran has not yet specified at what level the second spring will prosper. Iran has not yet publicly acknowledged the new cascade.

The 2015 nuclear deal banned all enrichment in Fordow. Shielded by mountains, the facility is surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to hold 3,000 centrifuges, but leading US officials to suspect it had a military purpose in 2009 to publicly expose the site. It was short and hard enough.

Amid tensions, Israel is suspected of carrying out a series of attacks targeting the country within and outside Iran, including the assassination of the architect of its once-military nuclear program with a remote-controlled machine gun.

On Tuesday, the state-run IRNA news agency quoted a prosecutor for Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Balochistan province as alleging that three people were arrested in April on suspicion of working with Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, which deals with Iranian nuclear scientists. wanted to kill

It is not clear why all three may have been in Sistan and Balochistan, where there are no nuclear sites. The troubled province bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan has faced sporadic attacks by armed insurgent groups.

Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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