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Iran Watch: The 80/20 rule

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.

IIPA via Getty Images

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Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Trip to China

Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-American novelist whose books Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook enliven the farcical edges of living in a totalitarian society, returned recently from a two week reporting trip to China, the cruel and prosperous land of the future. "We suck," Shteyngart said over the phone. "The saddest flight in the world is Beijing Capital to Newark." FP interviewed Shteyngart about Jews in China, how to build a successful business, and the world outside Brooklyn, edited and condensed for clarity.  

Foreign Policy: Did you tell people you were Jewish in China?

Gary Shteyngart: I did. They said ‘why are Jews so sad and anxious? Why can't you cheer up?' What I said to that, was, you know, the Holocaust. They said we were kind of similar that way. I don't know what happened [to the Chinese] exactly, I read about it on Wikipedia.

FP: You mentioned in a tweet that you started your own boutique investment firm in Shanghai but it failed after five hours. What did you get from it?

GS: A lot of dignity. You can't really monetize dignity.

FP: What did you talk to the Chinese about?

GS: A lot of people in the United States want to be Chinese. A lot of the Chinese want to be writers. They're adorable. I told them not to do it. It's so sweet -- I was talking to one young lady, she was so touched that I would speak to her. Kind of a rough and tumble society, China. We gentle Jewish professors of creative writing are just incredible to them.

FP: What did you feel after you came back from China?

GS: The saddest flight in the world is Beijing to Newark. Beijing is Charles De Gaulle, Newark is Burkina Faso.  I'd feel better if America looked great -- but we don't. We've been working too hard, we need to retire now and let someone else do it. It's not easy. The pollution in China. I'm still coughing up some weird petro-chemical things out of my lung (and I've been back for ten days). My whole cardio-vascular thing is so affected.

FP: What did you perform at Racist Park [a Chinese theme park that shows all of the minorities living together in harmony, now known in English as China Ethnic Culture Park]?

GS: I did the ol' Fiddler in the Roof. I was the third daughter, the one who married a goy. Fiddler on the Smokestack.

FP: What about Shanghai?

GS: I went to Pudong and saw that they're building the (world's) tallest building there. It's going to be taller than the other buildings.

We went to a steampunk club, called #88; [people were wearing] all sorts of Victorian corsets -- I guess some people had the leisure time to look appropriate. The world is so fascinating, I'm telling you -- this is what I tell young writers: Get out of Brooklyn.  

Oh, and I drank this horrifying thing. If there is one of thing chaining civilization back, its baijiu. You're burping sorghum for the rest of your life. There's no cure for baijiu.

FP: What do you recommend a young writer do in China?

GS: I'd start in the financial side -- young guy or girl, just out of Princeton, gets involved in some sort of private equity thing, learns about the corruption, and at the same time learn about the Asian work ethic. That's amazing that there hasn't been a great expatriate novel; it seems like half of the Ivy League is holed up in Shanghai.

FP: What about for the Williams environmental science grad?

GS: Well, they can go teach English. English teaching is sad, because everyone does it; it's the last resort. Or you could do NGO work. I met some NGO people, they were cute.

Writers, though. You have a lot of power as a writer here; anything with an embossed business card gives you face.

FP: Did you hand out copies of an embossed business card in China?

GS: No, I brought 800 copies of my book to give out to China, and handed them out with two hands to people all across the country, cab drivers...

FP: What did cab drivers think of your book?

GS: The cab drivers loved that it has both postmodern and traditional aspects.

FP: Best business idea in China that would last for more than five hours?

GS: We could have Communist Party youth league people collect used wire, and use this used wire in the penal system to flog people, or just to poke people with the wire. It's green. [environmentally friendly]. It's a good way to get in on China's growing penal system.