Just days into the new year, Iran announced that “a couple of hours ago,” it had started enriching uranium to 20 percent—a level that experts say would put it within a six-month sprint of converting its entire nuclear stockpile to bomb-grade material. Tehran’s move Monday raises the pressure on President-elect Joe Biden, whose administration now has no time to waste in facing an adversary signaling that it has no intention of warmly embracing Biden’s diplomatic outreach.
Iran is raising the stakes for Biden in the waning days of the Trump administration, trying to set the timetable for nuclear negotiations even though it is, in fact, the weaker party. Despite emerging debilitated from Donald Trump’s presidency, Iran is showing it still has cards to play.
Monday’s enrichment announcement was promptly followed by news that armed elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had intercepted, stormed and seized a South Korean tanker in the Persian Gulf. Iran claimed the ship was polluting Gulf waters, but Tehran’s real motivation appeared to be the $7 billion in Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks as a result of U.S. sanctions, and which Iran wants Seoul to release. The maneuver was also a deliberate reminder that Iran has the ability to disrupt maritime traffic through the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, as another point of pressure against the West.