The 20 Percent Solution

Iran's provocative uranium-enrichment program is at the center of its confrontation with the West. It's also, potentially, the way out.

On Monday, Jan. 9, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had begun producing 20 percent enriched uranium at Fordow, a fuel enrichment plant buried deep underground near the holy city of Qom. On the surface, there is little new here: Since February 2010, Iran has been producing 20 percent enriched uranium at Natanz, another once-secret site located about 3 ½ hours from Tehran.

Iran disclosed neither the Natanz nor the Fordow site to the IAEA until forced to do so, in 2002 and 2009, respectively, when outside observers discovered and publicized them. Fordow is smaller than Natanz in scale, but better protected from prying satellites and, potentially, a bombing campaign. Worryingly, the plant appears designed to focus on producing higher enrichments.

What has raised the world's suspicions is that Iran continues to produce 20 percent enriched uranium despite the fact that this exceeds its civilian needs and, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged in September, does not make economic sense.

There are serious concerns over the proliferation aspects of Iran's enrichment activities. Increasing stockpiles of enriched uranium, together with studies related to an advanced nuclear weapon design, are building blocks for attaining a virtual nuclear weapon capability. (A state has a virtual nuclear arsenal if it possesses weapons-usable nuclear material and the knowledge and experience needed to design, manufacture, assemble, and deploy nuclear weapons.) So Iran's recent announcement that it plans to increase production of 20 percent enriched uranium is alarming.

Over the last few days, Iran has begun operating two enrichment cascades at Fordow. Furthermore, Iran is completing installation of two additional cascades, with their planned operation already announced. Once the four cascades at Fordow, in addition to the two Natanz ones, are operating, Iran will be able to produce 15 kg of 20 percent enriched UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) per month. This process uses as feed 3.5 percent enriched uranium, which is produced currently at a rate of 140 to 150 kg UF6 per month at Natanz.

This means that Iran's entire uranium-enrichment program is now being devoted to producing 20 percent enriched uranium. At current production rates, Iran can expect to have a stock of 20 percent enriched uranium of around 250 kg UF6 by the end of 2012, as well as more than 4 tons of 3.5 percent enriched UF6. (These estimates are based on the use of IR-1 centrifuges, which are now also operating at Fordow.) Iran will not likely be able to commission a large number of more advanced and powerful centrifuges before 2013. But if that happens, it will be an altogether different scenario.

If Iran decides to produce weapons-grade uranium from 20 percent enriched uranium, it has already technically undertaken 90 percent of the enrichment effort required. What remains to be done is the feeding of 20 percent uranium through existing additional cascades to achieve weapons-grade enrichment (more than 90 percent uranium). This step is much faster than the earlier ones. Growing the stockpile of 3.5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium, as Iran is now doing, provides the basic material needed to produce four to five nuclear weapons. With IR-1 centrifuges, it would take half a year to go from 3.5 percent enriched uranium to weapons-grade material for the first nuclear device. More advanced centrifuges would cut the time required in half. If, however, IR-1s are using 20 percent enriched uranium as a feed, 250 kg UF6 with that level of enrichment can be turned to weapons-grade material in a month's time. This does not automatically mean Iran will be able to build a nuclear weapon in one month -- building an atomic bomb is a complex endeavor that requires precision engineering capabilities that Iran may lack -- but it does mean that the country would be able to "break out" of its international obligations very quickly should it decide to do so.

How can Iran convince the international community that its nuclear program will follow a peaceful track?

There are a few ways to go about it. One way would be to suspend the production of enriched uranium and convert the existing 3.5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium stocks, with the assistance of the international community, to fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, as well as for another modern research reactor that could be provided to Iran. This approach would be good for Iran, as it would give the country a sustainable production of radioisotopes for industrial and medical uses in the shortest time.

Iran would also have to address the world's concerns about the military dimensions of its nuclear program, concerns laid out in the IAEA's most recent monitoring report. So far, Iran's leaders have failed to do so, despite being signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. With sanctions beginning to bite, tensions growing in the Persian Gulf, and international patience running out, there's no time like the present.


IIPA via Getty Images


A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

Mitt Romney certainly talks tough on Iran, European socialism, and Obama's abandonment of Israel. But would his foreign policy really be any different?

It's a bit too early to say that Mitt Romney has wrapped up the Republican nomination for president -- but after Tuesday night's decisive win in the New Hampshire primary and recent polling that suggests Romney leads in the upcoming South Carolina and Florida primaries a trend is becoming visible.

So with that in mind, what might an Obama vs. Romney match-up look like on foreign policy? Yesterday, my Foreign Policy colleague Josh Keating laid out the key areas where Romney will likely attack the president, but just how significant are the policy differences between the two men?

To listen to Romney is to believe they are vast. In his only major foreign policy speech of the campaign at the Citadel in South Carolina, Romney offered a stark disparity between what a foreign policy under President Romney would look like as opposed to that of President Obama, "I will not surrender America's role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today."

This is the crux of Romney's attacks on Obama's foreign-policy performance: He is weak, he is feckless, he doesn't quite love America enough, he doesn't believe the United States is an exceptional country, and so on. This represents a familiar pattern of attacks against Democrats dating back decades. But if one digs a little bit deeper, things are more opaque. Romney loves to attack the president for alleged weakness and lack of seriousness on basically every foreign policy issue -- but when it comes to offering policy solutions markedly different from the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Romney has little to offer other than tough talk.

For example, in his Citadel speech Romney laid out four principles that would guide his foreign policy decision-making. According to Romney, they are:

"American foreign policy must be prosecuted with clarity and resolve."

"America must promote open markets, representative government, and respect for human rights."

"The United States will apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict."

"The United States will exercise leadership in multilateral organizations and alliances."

In an interview yesterday with FP's Josh Rogin, Romney's top national security surrogate, former Missouri Senator Jim Talent, said his candidate's four foreign policy priorities are preventing "Iran from getting a nuclear weapon ... channeling China in a direction of peaceful competition rather than aggression ... reestablish[ing] the strength of traditional allies, and play[ing] a larger leadership role in the international community."

In principle, at least, it's very difficult to see how these priorities are in any way different from those underpinning Obama's foreign policy. Notwithstanding Romney's exceptionalist rhetoric and constant complaints that Obama regularly apologizes for America, in broad strokes the two men view the world and American power basically along the same lines. If there are any identifiable differences between the two candidates it is in their political bluster -- and this has the potential to be far more consequential than actual policy alternatives.

For example, Romney has criticized the president for choosing to withdraw troops from Afghanistan based allegedly on "electoral expediency," but has not indicated any willingness to keep troops in the country past 2014 and has called for speeding up the handover of security responsibility to the Afghan government -- which is precisely Obama's position on the war. Yet, at the same time he has said "[W]e do not negotiate with terrorists. The Taliban are terrorists, they are our enemy" -- a position that might score points on the campaign trail but could very easily limit his options as president in ending the war in Afghanistan.

How about Israel, which Romney has accused the White House of throwing under a bus -- surely here the two candidates have sharply identified differences here? Not really. If anything, Romney rhetorically is more supportive of Israel (though not by much) but except for a pledge to reduce funding to the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for a unilateral declaration of statehood there does not seem to be much identifiable policy difference. But again, now that Romney has said no pressure against Israel is acceptable, what options does that give him as president for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Even on China, which Romney has strongly attacked on the campaign trail for its economic policies, the candidate's bark is again bigger than his bite. Consider his Washington Post op-ed from this fall, where he repeatedly castigated the Obama administration for failing to more aggressively challenge Chinese economic policies that he claimed harmed the United States. Romney's alternative? A host of unilateral measures to increase "enforcement of U.S. trade laws," place "countervailing duties against [Chinese] currency manipulation," "punitive measures" targeting Chinese products and industries that benefit from Beijing's allegedly protectionist policies, and multilateral efforts to "block technology transfers into China."

According to Devin Stewart, a China expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Council, "Romney's plan differs very little from what Obama is already doing. This is the trade equivalent of the generic, ‘I will defend the U.S. national interest.' He is supporting rule of law, intellectual property, and free trade -- just as Obama has."

That may be, but when it comes to campaign rhetoric, Romney has also accused China of systematic exploitation, stealing intellectual property, cyber-hacking, and currency manipulation -- among other indignities. Even if he is not actually suggesting a policy that markedly different in scope from Obama's, will he be able to act as though it is simply business as usual with China's leaders if he finds himself sitting in sitting in the Oval Office or will he be at risk of fraying relations with Beijing?

Finally, on Iran's nuclear program, Romney's policy of "crippling sanctions," covert operations, keeping all options on the table, and working with allies in the region to isolate Iran is remarkably similar to Obama's.

But here again, Romney's rhetoric might get him in trouble: It's not enough for him to say that he will do more to challenge Iran's nuclear aspirations -- he has effectively promised action by declaring that if he is elected president, Iran "will not have a nuclear weapon."

It isn't just potential rivals that get a tongue lashing from Romney. Last night, in his victory speech in New Hampshire he -- not once, not twice, but three times -- castigated "European" economic policies and it's "entitlement society" which he claims directly influence Obama's "failed" economic policies (that first trip to Berlin or Paris of the Romney presidency might be a tad awkward). It's a bit ironic, however, that a candidate who regularly lambastes the president for allegedly undermining Israel, a key U.S. ally, has no problem attacking the country's key political and economic allies in Europe.

All this tough talk can create serious political problems if Romney is elected president -- he's locked himself into a potentially intractable position on Iranian nukes; he risks estranging economic partners in China; and he'll have some serious repair work ahead with not just European allies, but also Russia -- another country that he has taken to task on the campaign trail.

Indeed, the greatest distinction between the two candidates has little to do with actual differences of opinion on policy. Rather, the 2012 election is shaping up to be a race between a candidate who speaks in more measured tones (a responsibility that tends to come with being president but also one that he evinced on the campaign trail in 2008) while the other talks a big game. While this may suggest a stylistic rather than substantive gap between Obama and Romney, it could lead to two very different foreign policy approaches come January 2013.