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Iran Seizes South Korean-Flagged Ship As Tensions Mount With U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Iran has taken new steps apparently in defiance of the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign on the country. Iran says it is ramping up production of uranium for nuclear fuel, and it seized a South Korean-flagged tanker. Both moves can be reversed, but they raised tensions with the U.S. as President-elect Biden prepares to take office. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Tehran announced it is boosting uranium enrichment to 20%. The provocative move coincides with the first anniversary of the U.S. killing of a top Iranian military commander, Qassem Soleimani. Henry Rome is an analyst at Eurasia Group.

HENRY ROME: Iran has not enriched to the 20% level since before the nuclear agreement was signed in 2015. And 20% is actually quite close to weapons-grade.

NORTHAM: President Trump got out of the 2015 nuclear deal, saying it needed to be tougher on Iran and reimpose sanctions that had been lifted as part of the agreement. But since then, Iran has advanced its nuclear program and is demanding to get out from under the crushing sanctions. Rome says Tehran has an option to wait and see if Biden would enter nuclear negotiations, but instead, the regime is playing hardball in order to force the issue to the top of Biden's agenda.

ROME: The Iranians had telegraphed that their goal in the lead-up to Biden's inauguration was frankly to trigger a crisis over its nuclear program in an effort to try to compel the incoming U.S. administration to grant it sanctions relief immediately.

NORTHAM: The U.S. sanctions have drastically reduced Iran's oil sales and crippled its economy. Earlier today Iran's Revolutionary Guard forces seized a South Korean tanker in the Persian Gulf and detained its multinational crew. It's demanding that Seoul unlock billions of dollars held up because of the U.S. sanctions. The U.S. is demanding Iran release the ship.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "TRAIL OF TEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.