How serious are Iranian nuclear threats?

The country has said it would be able to start enriching uranium within five days of a dissolution of the landmark nuclear deal.

Iran displays its arsenal of missiles (photo credit: Courtesy)
Iran displays its arsenal of missiles
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are at least two key points to make about Iran’s threat on Tuesday that it could highly enrich uranium within five days if it chooses to pull out of the nuclear deal with the West.
The first is that this has nothing to do with Iran developing a nuclear bomb in a matter of days. Estimates of its ability to breakout to develop a nuclear weapon if it walked away from the deal range from between six and 12 months.
The second, as put forth by INSS Iran expert Emily Landau and others, is that Iran’s threat is a sign of continued noncooperation as the debate about how the US and Israel should view the deal continues.
First, debunking Iran’s threat.
Read carefully:  Iran was not threatening to enrich uranium to the 90% range, which is needed to achieve weaponization.
Rather, it was threatening to enrich uranium from the 3-5% range to the 20% range that it had before the deal.
Twenty percent means that Iran has less to do to get the uranium to 90%, but it is still far from being weaponized.
Also, Iran has depleted its once large stock of already enriched uranium.
While Obama administration figures said the deal would hold off Iran from breaking out for at least 12 months, the Institute for Science and International Security and others have said Iran could breakout in as few as six months. Six months is still not five days.
Why is Iran trying to sound like it can get to a nuclear weapon faster than it can? Landau notes that Iran wants the deal to continue, “because otherwise it would lose economic benefits so it is in their short and medium term interest to keep it..., and it is not a bad deal for them as they can move to get nuclear weapons” when its terms expire “while getting stronger regionally.”
In other words, Iran does not want to lose the deal’s pluses and wants to pressure the West to stick to the deal as is, without tougher enforcement that it is worried about from the Trump administration.
Why are Iran’s threats significant? Landau explains that many of those who are afraid of pressing Iran to change its disruptive regional behavior lest it walk away from the deal, continue to focus on Iran as being technically mostly compliant with the agreement.
In contrast, she said Iran’s threats show that it is not cooperative and gives support to those who say Iran may have secret breakout plans lined up and concealed nuclear activities.
The international community might need to ask Iran how it would enrich uranium to 20% in only five days, which might suggest that Iran could break out faster than the “fast” six-month estimate.
“How does the threat square with Iran’s commitments under the nuclear deal?” asked Landau, contending that more violations might be discovered if inspectors look into Iran’s threat.
Further, it signals that Iran’s mentality is not that of a state which has moved on from seeking nuclear weapons.
Obviously, much of Iran’s latest threat is also part of its back and forth with the Trump administration, which is making plenty of its own threats. But Landau points out that Iran made plenty of threats against the more friendly Obama administration as well.
Ironically then, Iran’s threat to leave the deal both exposes its true desire to milk the deal for the benefits it offers economically without permanent limits on its nuclear abilities, and signals that Iran has not given up on its nuclear ambitions long-term.