- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
The “Pareto Principle” posits that, for many phenomena, 80 percent of output comes from 20 percent of input (you can apply this “80/20 rule” to everything from the large share of business a company derives from its small base of dedicated customers to, more depressingly, the short period of time you spend getting most of your work done at the office).
As the world’s top powers prepare for nuclear talks with Iran in mid-April (today’s over-heated sideshow: Iran is dithering about whether to hold the summit in Turkey, Iraq, or China), we should keep the 80/20 rule in mind. Particularly the fact that much of the initial disagreement between negotiators may stem from one thorny number: 20 percent.
On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak revealed that Israel is asking its allies to pressure Iran at the talks — wherever they take place — to transfer all uranium enriched to 20 percent to another country. “Israel is prepared to wait for the negotiations’ results before it decides on a course of action,” he explained. “It’s not a matter of weeks, but not of years either.”
Iran meter: Barak may not have a difficult time convincing Western powers to pursue his goal. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association recently told Reuters that the White House may focus “on halting 20 percent enrichment of uranium as a first-step confidence-building measure.” (Other experts predict Washington’s opening salvo will also include an attempt to suspend work at the Fordow enrichment facility.)
Why 20 percent in particular? “Nuclear bombs,” Reuters explains, “require uranium enriched to 90 percent, but much of the effort required to get there is already achieved once it reaches 20 percent concentration, shortening the time needed for any nuclear weapons ‘break-out.'”
But the 20 percent goal may be a hard sell. Iran began enriching uranium to 20 percent in 2010 — after previously enriching it to the 3.5 percent level required to fuel nuclear power plants — and it’s been doing so in earnest. Tehran now has roughly 250 pounds of 20 percent enriched uranium and has nearly tripled the number of devices producing the higher grade uranium in the past three months, according to the Associated Press.
And while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested in September that Tehran would stop refining uranium to 20 percent if it received fuel for a medical research reactor (which requires higher-level enrichment than power plants), there are signs that Iranian negotiators may be less amenable to such a fuel swap this time around. In March, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei boasted that Iran’s 20 percent enrichment had “surprised the enemies,” while the Iranian lawmaker Aladin Borujerdi declared that “the parliament will never allow the government to go back even one step in its nuclear policy.”
Sure, it could all be bluster. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of that 20 percent figure to cause big problems — and undercut confidence before it has a chance to take root.