Iran’s showdown with the West slid closer to dangerous confrontation on Tuesday as international alarm over a new uranium enrichment plant and Tehran’s death sentence for a “CIA spy” raised the stakes.
Both sides were digging in deeper and brandishing military muscle, with Iran’s defiance hardening and the United States and European Union actively taking steps to fracture the Iranian economy through further sanctions.
The IAEA’s confirmation on Monday that Iran had begun enriching uranium in a new, underground bunker southwest of Tehran was seized upon by the United States, Britain, France and Germany as an unacceptable “violation” of UN Security Council resolutions.
But Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, on Tuesday shot back that the stance was “politically motivated”. The Fordo plant had been revealed two years ago and documented, he said. The 20% enriched uranium it was to produce would be used for “peaceful and humanitarian” purposes, namely isotopes for cancer treatment, he said.
That seemed unlikely to reassure the United States, though, or its chief West Asian ally, Israel, analysts said.
“Israel, which has already warned Iran that it could take military action against installations, is very, very worried by this facility ... We are moving into dangerous territory,” said Mark Hibbs, an analyst.
On Monday, a Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced an American former Marine, Amir Mirzai Hekmati, to death after convicting him of being a CIA spy.
The US has called for the release of Hekmati, 28. US officials said the allegation that he was sent by the CIA to infiltrate the Iranian intelligence ministry was false.
Iran, which last month put on display what it said was a CIA reconnaissance drone it claimed to have captured through cyberwarfare, has also been stepping up military exercises in a show of strength.