Iranian and Western sources said on Monday Iran had switched on a uranium enrichment plant deep inside a mountain, a momentous step that aggravates Tehran’s nuclear dispute with the West. In a separate development that will infuriate Washington, Iran also announced that it had sentenced to death an Iranian-American dual citizen it arrested last month as a spy.
The moves come at a time when new U.S. sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear program are causing real economic pain. Tehran has responded with threats to international shipping that have spooked oil markets. And a parliamentary election in two months is widening Iran’s internal political divisions.
“The enrichment in Fordow has started,” an Iranian official who asked not to be identified told Reuters. Two diplomats at the Vienna headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has inspected the site, confirmed it.
Iran has long said it would begin enrichment of uranium at the site, deep under a mountain near the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom, but some Western capitals may have hoped it could be persuaded to hold off to restart diplomacy to lift sanctions.
Enrichment is the most contentious part of Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran says it intends to refine uranium to 20 percent purity for use in a peaceful medical research reactor, and that it has hidden nothing from the IAEA. “All nuclear activities, including enrichment in Natanz and Fordow, are under continuous surveillance and control and safeguards of the IAEA,” Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told Reuters in Vienna.
The West says uranium of 20 percent purity is not necessary for power plants and would be a big step towards the higher purity needed for a nuclear bomb. Western officials say Iran lacks the technology to process enriched uranium into a form suitable to running a medical research reactor.
Locating the enrichment complex inside a mountain makes it harder for Israel or the United States to destroy it. Both countries say military action remains a last resort option should diplomacy and sanctions fail to rein in Tehran.
Iran disclosed to the IAEA in 2009 that it was building the facility beneath a mountain at Fordow, but only after learning that it had been detected by Western intelligence. “All of Iran’s enrichment activity is in violation of (United Nations) Security Council resolutions and any expansion of its capacity at Fordow just compounds those violations,” said a Western diplomat in Vienna.
The death sentence for Amir Mirza Hekmati, 28, an Arizona-born former U.S. military translator, will further rile Washington, which denies he is a spy and has demanded his immediate release since his arrest last month.
Iran has aired a televised confession – denounced by Washington – in which Hekmati said he worked for a New York-based video company designing games to manipulate public opinion in the Middle East on behalf of U.S. intelligence.
“Amir Mirza Hekmati was sentenced to death … for cooperating with the hostile country America and spying for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency),” ISNA news agency quoted judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei as saying.
“The court found him Corrupt on the Earth and Mohareb (one who wages war on God). Hekmati can appeal to the Supreme Court.” Hekmati’s execution could still be blocked by Iran’s highest court, which must confirm all death sentences.
His family says Hekmati was visiting grandparents in Iran when he was held. A spokesman for Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan, where Hekmati’s father works, said the family would not be commenting on the sentence “because it’s a very tricky diplomatic situation”.
Washington says he has been denied access to Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in a country where it has had no mission since its embassy was stormed in 1979. Hekmati previously worked as a U.S. military translator. Iran’s Farsi language is one of the two main tongues spoken in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military often deploys Americans of Iranian origin there as translators. Tehran, which imposes the death penalty frequently for crimes such as drug dealing and murder, is not known to have executed any U.S. citizen as a spy.