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Although he was born in Arizona and graduated high school in Michigan, Mr. Hekmati is of Iranian descent, and Tehran has accused him of being inside Iran on a special U.S. intelligence mission.

Mr. Hekmati’s father, a community college professor in Flint, Mich., has said his son is not a CIA agent and was visiting his grandmothers in Iran when he was arrested.

With no diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, U.S. officials are hoping Iranian authorities will allow Swiss diplomats access to Mr. Hekmati in prison. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran.

Uranian-enrichment threat

Friction caused by the case was only amplified Monday when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed claims by Iran that it is pushing ahead with a clandestine uranium-enrichment program at the heavily fortified Fordo nuclear facility in the nation’s northern city of Qom.

An agency spokesman issued a statement saying the Fordo facility is under “containment and surveillance” by the IAEA, but the agency also lent credence to Iranian claims to be achieving a 20 percent enrichment of uranium at the facility.

Since uranium must be enriched 90 percent to reach weapons grade, Iran asserts the Fordo activities are peaceful and geared toward producing fuel for a nuclear reactor that makes medical radioisotopes used to treat cancer patients.

However, the 20 percent enrichment confirmed by the IAEA far surpasses the 3 percent to 5 percent level needed to power a nuclear electricity reactor and signals a potentially alarming uptick from earlier levels reported by Iran.

“When you enrich to 20 percent, there is no possible reason for that if you’re talking about a peaceful program,” said Mrs. Nuland at the State Department.

“It generally tends to indicate that you are enriching to a level that takes you to a different kind of nuclear program.”

The development sparks fresh fears of an Iranian nuclear program closer to the achievement of warheads and raises a difficult specter for U.S. and European allies that, in recent weeks, have built international momentum around sanctions aimed at blocking the program.

The United States is calling on countries “to impress upon the Iranian regime that the course that it’s on in its nuclear dialogue with the international community is the wrong one,” Mrs. Nuland said.

“It’s in the interest of all countries, including the countries that he’s visiting in Latin America, that Iran proves the peaceful intent of its nuclear program to the world,” she added, referring to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip.

The sanctions specifically authorize U.S. penalties against foreign firms doing business with the Iranian energy sector. The Obama administration acknowledged the complex hurdles that will need to be overcome in order for the sanctions to achieve success on a wide international scale.

“For these sanctions to be most effective, they need to be multilateral and have multilateral participation,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

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