Iran resumed uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow plant south of Tehran on Thursday in a new step back from its commitments under a landmark 2015 nuclear deal.
Engineers began feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into the plant’s mothballed enrichment centrifuges in “the first minutes of Thursday”, the statement said.
The suspension of uranium enrichment at the long secret plant was one of the restrictions Iran had agreed to on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of UN sanctions.
Iran’s announcement on Wednesday that it would resume enrichment at the Fordow plant from midnight (2030 GMT) had drawn a chorus of concern from the remaining parties to the troubled agreement.
Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia have been trying to salvage the hard-won deal since Washington abandoned it in May last year and reimposed crippling unilateral sanctions.
They say Iran’s phased suspension of its obligations under the deal since May makes that more difficult.
The resumption of enrichment at Fordow is Iran’s fourth move away from the deal.
Uranium enrichment is the sensitive process that produces fuel for nuclear power plants but also, in highly extended form, the fissile core for a warhead.
Iran has always denied any military dimension to its nuclear programme.
It has been at pains to emphasise that all of the steps it has taken are transparent and swiftly reversible if the remaining parties to the agreement find a way to get round US sanctions.
“All these activities have been carried out under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” the Iranian nuclear organisation said.
A source close to the UN watchdog told AFP that it has inspectors on the ground in Fordow and would report “very rapidly” on the steps taken by Iran.
Iran’s latest move comes after the passing of a deadline it set for the remaining parties to the nuclear agreement to come up with a mechanism that would allow foreign firms to continue doing business with Iran without incurring US penalties.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern about Tehran’s announcements but said European powers should do their part.
“They are demanding that Iran fulfil all (obligations) without exception but are not giving anything in return,” he told reporters in Moscow.
The Kremlin has previously called sanctions against Iran “unprecedented and illegal”.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Iran had made “grave” decisions and its resumption of uranium enrichment was a “profound change” from Tehran’s previous position.
“I will have discussions in the coming days, including with the Iranians, and we must collectively draw the consequences,” Macron said during a trip to Beijing.
The next few weeks will be dedicated to increasing pressure on Iran to return within the framework of the pact, the French president said, adding that this must be “accompanied by an easing of some sanctions”.
“A return to normal can only take place if the United States and Iran agree to reopen a sort of trust agenda” and dialogue, Macron said, adding that he would discuss the issue with Trump.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britain remained committed to a negotiated way forward but demanded that Iran abide by its obligations.
“We want to find a way forward through constructive international dialogue but Iran needs to stand by the commitments it made and urgently return to full compliance,” he said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Iran must roll back its decision to resume uranium enrichment, calling Tehran’s action “unacceptable”.
“We call on Iran to reverse all steps taken since July and return to full compliance with its commitments,” Maas told reporters in Berlin.
“Our aim is to maintain the nuclear agreement,” he said. “We have always fully implemented our commitments and Iran must now urgently relent in order to ease tensions.”
A FIFA delegation visited Tehran on Friday to discuss allowing female spectators into football matches, the official news agency IRNA reported, days after a public row over a female fan who killed herself.
“The FIFA delegation first visited the sports ministry and talked to officials and the football federation on the presence of women in (Tehran’s) Azadi stadium,” IRNA said.
It said federation officials told the visiting team that preparations have been made for women to attend football matches and they would “officially” be allowed to enter for the October 10 Iran-Cambodia game.
“The delegation then visited the stadium… and inspected entry gates and stands set up for women,” the agency added.
The Islamic republic has barred female spectators from football and other stadiums since 1981, with clerics arguing they must be protected from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.
Sahar Khodayari, dubbed “blue girl” because of the colours of the team she supported, Esteghlal FC, was reportedly detained last year when trying to enter a stadium dressed as a man to watch them.
She died of her injuries in a Tehran hospital after setting herself on fire outside a court in early September.
The death of Khodayari sparked an outcry online, with many calling on world football’s governing body FIFA to ban Iran from international competitions and for fans to boycott matches.
Iran has come under pressure from FIFA to allow women to attend qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, and it was reportedly given a deadline of August 31 to comply.
Iran’s sports ministry said last month that women fans would be allowed into the stadium when Team Melli — as the national team are known — play their next home qualifier.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards announced Friday they had confiscated a British tanker in the strategic Strait of Hormuz for breaking “international maritime rules”.
The Stena Impero tanker “was confiscated by the Revolutionary Guards at the request of Hormozgan Ports and Maritime Organisation when passing through the strait of Hormuz, for failing to respect international maritime rules,” the Guards’ official website Sepahnews announced.
The tanker “was led to the shore and handed over to the organisation to go through the legal procedure and required investigations,” it said.
The Swedish owners of the Stena Impero said the vessel had come under “attack” in the Strait of Hormuz.
Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management said in a statement that it “can confirm that… our managed vessel Stena Impero was attacked by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter while transiting the Strait of Hormuz while the vessel was in international waters”.
“We are presently unable to contact the vessel which is now tracking as heading north towards Iran,” it said.
And the United States, which has blamed Tehran for a series of tanker attacks in the Gulf in recent months despite Iranian denials, denounced what it called “escalatory violence” by Iran in the strategic waterway.
“The US will continue to work with our allies and partners to defend our security and interests against Iran’s malign behaviour,” National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement.
Tanker tracking service Marine Traffic showed that the UK-flagged, Swedish-owned Stena Impero last signalled its location near the Island of Larak in the highly sensitive waterway at 9:00 PM local time (1630 GMT).
The UK is “urgently seeking further information and assessing the situation following reports of an incident in the Gulf,” a British government spokesperson said.
The announcement came just hours after Gibraltar’s Supreme Court announced it would extend by 30 days the detention of an Iranian tanker seized two weeks ago on allegations that it was headed to Syria in violation of sanctions.
British authorities’ detention of the Grace 1 supertanker sparked outrage in Tehran, which accused London of doing the bidding of the Washington in action that is “tantamount to maritime banditry”.
On Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused the “vicious British” of “piracy” and vowed retaliation.
The Guards also seized another “foreign tanker” on Thursday, believed to be the Panamanian-flagged vessel Riah and its crew, and accused the ship of smuggling Iranian fuel.
A series of such incidents have sent tensions soaring between Iran on one side and the US and its allies on the other, raising fears of a regional war in the Gulf.
President Donald Trump insisted Friday that the American military had downed an Iranian drone that was threatening a US naval vessel in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which Tehran denied.
On Thursday, Trump said the USS Boxer had downed an Iranian drone that threatened the amphibious assault ship as it was entering the Strait.
The alleged incident came after Iran shot down a US drone last month, nearly sparking retaliatory strikes.
The Strait of Hormuz is the conduit for nearly a third of the world’s crude oil.
President Donald Trump on Monday said Washington has not reached out for talks with Iran and that if Tehran wants to negotiate, it will have to take the first step.
“The Fake News put out a typically false statement, without any knowledge that the United States was trying to set up a negotiation with Iran. This is a false report,” Trump wrote in a tweet that did not specify what report he was referring to.
“Iran will call us if and when they are ever ready. In the meantime, their economy continues to collapse – very sad for the Iranian people!” Trump tweeted.
Trump has blown hot and cold over Iran, leading many in Washington to fear he is rushing to conflict, but then indicating that he has no desire to embroil the United States in another distant war.
On Sunday, he upped the temperature with a tweet that warned of “the official end of Iran” should the country attack the United States.
The Trump administration is piling the pressure on Iran by ripping up a hard-fought international deal to steer the country away from its nuclear ambitions and attempting to shut off Iran’s badly needed oil exports.
It has also sent an aircraft carrier and bomber planes to the region, citing Iranian threats to US interests.
Iran’s foreign minister downplayed the prospect of a new war in the region on Saturday, saying Tehran opposed it and no party was under the “illusion” the Islamic republic could be confronted.
“We are certain… there will not be a war since neither we want a war nor does anyone have the illusion they can confront Iran in the region,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told state-run news agency IRNA at the end of a visit to China.
Iran-US relations hit a new low last year as US Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed unilateral sanctions that had been lifted in exchange for Tehran scaling back its nuclear program.
President Donald Trump praised Iranian protesters on Tuesday for acting against Tehran’s “brutal and corrupt” regime after days of bloody unrest, while also lashing out at his predecessor Barack Obama.
“The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime,” Trump tweeted, a day after calling for regime change in the Islamic republic.
“All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The US is watching!”
The comments were Trump’s latest hint of a possible US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — that was a signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration.
Trump has been vocal on Twitter about the protests in Iran since they erupted last week.
On Monday, he said it was “time for change” in Iran and that the country’s people were “hungry” for freedom.
In response to Trump’s latest Twitter attack, Iran’s foreign ministry said the US president should focus on “homeless and hungry people” in his own country rather than insulting Iranians.
“Instead of wasting his time sending useless and insulting tweets regarding other countries, he would be better off seeing to the domestic issues of his own country such as daily killings of dozens of people… and the existence of millions of homeless and hungry people,” said ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has hit back at Trump’s comments, saying the US leader — whose “whole being is against the nation of Iran — has “no right” to sympathize with protesters.
Protests began in Iran’s second largest city Mashhad and quickly spread to become the biggest challenge to the Islamic regime since mass demonstrations in 2009.
Iranian officials have said online accounts in the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia are fomenting protests, which Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed on the country’s “enemies.”
Some 450 people have been arrested in the Iranian capital over the past three days during unrest linked to protests, an official told local media on Tuesday.
“200 people were arrested on Saturday, 150 on Sunday and around 100 on Monday,” Ali-Asghar Naserbakht, a deputy in the Tehran city governor’s office, told the reformist-linked ILNA news agency.
Protests have been relatively small in Tehran compared with many parts of the country since the unrest began last Thursday.
“We feel the situation in Tehran is more calm than previous days. Already yesterday, it was calmer than before,” said Naserbakht.
He added that no request had yet been put to the Revolutionary Guards to intervene in the capital.
“We will not permit insecurity to continue in any way in Tehran. If it continues, officials will take decisions to finish it,” said Esmail Kowsari, a deputy commander for a local branch of the Revolutionary Guards, on state television.
The streets of Iran’s capital have been relatively quiet as protests hit much of the country, but Tehranis still have plenty to complain about and demand action from the government.
“Life is really difficult. The high prices really put me under pressure. My husband is a government worker but his salary is no way enough for us to make ends meet,” said Farzaneh Mirzaie, 42, a mother of two.
She said much of her family worked in a carpet factory in Kashan, a town 250 kilometres (150 miles) south of the capital, but they have all recently lost their jobs.
“The owner of the factory cannot afford to buy thread for carpets and so he sacked everyone. How should they survive?”
It is a story heard up and down the country as Iran struggles to recover from years of poor economic management and crippling international sanctions.
On Sunday night, Tehranis listened to President Hassan Rouhani address the mass protests that have spread across Iran since Thursday, in which he said people had the right to protest but should not engage in violence.
“He says it’s free for people to protest but we’re scared of speaking. Even now, I’m scared of talking to you,” said Sarita Mohammadi, a 35-year-old teacher.
“If it’s free to speak out and protest, then why have they deployed so many forces out there in the streets?”
‘We’ll have to pay for it’
Many people are nonetheless put off by the violence they have seen from protesters who have attacked banks, government buildings and symbols of the regime.
Sara, a 26-year-old student in conservative dress, agreed with the government line that the protests were being “guided from abroad”, but even she felt the protests began over “people’s economic hardship”.
“I’m not at all for demonstrations in which public property is vandalised. When some break windows, then we’ll have to pay for it later,” added Shiva Daneshvar, a 55-year-old housewife.
But everyone understands the frustration seething under Iranian society.
“I think people don’t like to vandalise and set fire to places, but this is the only way to make their voices heard,” said Nasser Khalaf, 52, who works for an oil company, adding that he has two unemployed sons in their twenties.
Many feel the nation has not been rewarded for enduring decades of hardship — the tumult of the 1979 revolution, eight years of brutal war with Iraq in the 1980s and recent US sanctions.
“After 40 years they have realised that all the hardship… was in vain,” said Arya Rahmani, a 27-year-old nurse.
“I’m working in this society but I always have the stress of whether I’m going to be sacked tomorrow.”
“Mr Rouhani says ‘protest in a proper way’, but what is the proper way? If I come and say ‘Mr Rouhani, I’m an educated person but I’m unemployed’… well, he wouldn’t give a damn.”
Trump in ‘his palace’
There was typical derision regarding US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly tweeted his support for the protests in recent days, saying Monday that it was “TIME FOR CHANGE!”
“Verbal support is of no use,” said Rahmani. “He’s living in his palace and here I’m arrested. What can Trump do?”
“It would be better if he didn’t support the protests,” added Khalaf, saying that external support from opposition groups was also unwelcome.
Many harbour a deep mistrust of Trump after he barred Iranians from visiting the United States as part of his ban on “terrorist” nations.
“The government should improve the people’s situation to a level where Trump won’t dare say such a thing,” said Mirzaie, the housewife.
Underlying it all is a deep-seated frustration that their country has failed to capitalise on its huge potential.
“Our country is really like gold. Whatever you can think of, you can find in Iran. But we are not benefiting at all from the things we have in our country,” said Mirzaie.
It remains unclear where the protests will go from here.
Without a clear leadership structure, the protests may struggle to stay focused, particularly if authorities decide to crack down more firmly than they have so far.
Khalaf, the oil company employee, said that may be tougher than during the last mass protests that followed allegations of election-rigging in 2009.
“In 2009 when people took to the streets it was only in Tehran and so they easily managed to suppress it,” he said.
“When it is widespread, then less forces can be sent.”
Iran’s ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a dominant figure in the country’s politics since the 1980s, has died at the age of 82, media say.
Mr Rafsanjani had suffered a heart attack on Sunday and died in an hospital in Tehran.
He served as president from 1989 to 1997 but lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he ran again in 2005.
Rafsanjani was an influential figure in Iran, and headed the Expediency Council, a body which is intended to resolve disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council.
He was also a member of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that selects the supreme leader, Iran’s most powerful figure.
Rafsanjani has been described as “a pillar of the Islamic revolution.” His pragmatic policies – economic liberalization, better relations with the West and empowering Iran’s elected bodies – appealed to many Iranians but was despised by hardliners.
The 12-member Guardian Council, a dominant force in Iran that interprets the constitution, disqualified Mr Rafsanjani after he entered the race for the 2013 presidential election as a reformist candidate.