Iran’s Claim of Five Days

We may see magnification and misrepresentation of some things Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s chief of atomic energy, said.

Let’s get an accurate translation first: Ariane Tabatabai speaks Persian. Her tweetstream starts here. I’ll collect what she translates for easier reading.

What Salehi actually said: “We are so prepared for snapback, that, really, the other party will be surprised. In just 4-5 days, we can start enriching [uranium] at 20%.”

That was several days ago. Tabatabai translates a more recent statement:

If we decide, we can start 20% enrichment in Fordow in maximum 5 days. And this means a lot. From a technical and professional perspective, this would send a signal, and the adversary would understand that. If they torpedo the JCPOA, North Korea will tell then, ‘you don’t stick to your promises.’ Imagine they’d want to solve DPRK politically. If they withdraw from JCPOA, North Korea will tell them, ‘you concluded a deal with Iran, and Iran insists it wants to stay in, so why did you leave?’ Then the North Koreans will ask what kind of guarantee there would be if they reach a deal. If JCPOA is dismantled, everything will part apart, foundation of international relations. And so will credibility of countries like US

Let me expand.

Five days is about what it would take to replumb the centrifuges at Fordow, now set up for enriching lighter nonfissile isotopes, to enrich uranium to 20%. That 20% is probably a rounding-up from 19.75%, which doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it is. Twenty per cent is defined by the IAEA as the lower limit of weapons grade uranium. The higher enrichment level Iran was producing for a research reactor was 19.75%, so that it would be in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

But even if 20% – weapons grade – is what Salehi intended, that’s not a big deal. The number of centrifuges at Fordow means that the quantities enriched would probably be on the order of grams per month. A bomb would require hundreds of kilograms of 20% uranium. That’s an impractical bomb and impossible goal with only the centrifuges at Fordow.

But 20% is a jumping-off point for further enrichment to a realistic weapons grade, generally taken to be over 90%. That would require still more centrifuges, or a program of constantly replumbing the centrifuges at Fordow for batches of stepped-up enrichments.

In order to do any of this, Iran would have to throw out the IAEA inspectors, so we would know as they started.

The bottom lines are

  1. The JCPOA is working. Iran remains about a year from a bomb.
  2. Salehi felt he had to bluster back at Trump’s bluster about desiring to find Iran in noncompliance.
  3. Opponents of the JCPOA are running with this and exaggerating it. So don’t believe what you may hear about Iran having a bomb in five days. Yes, there was one idiot headline that said that.


Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.