As Senate debates Iran, Energy secretary vows to stay 'open' with Congress

On Monday, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz pledged to be 'completely open' with Congress. He addressed several issues raised by skeptics.

Michael Bonfigli/Staff
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz speaks at a Monitor breakfast with reporters on Monday, April 27, 2015 in Washington, DC.

This week, the full Senate will debate a carefully crafted, bipartisan bill that requires Congress to have a say in any final deal to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. Critics of a deal abound, raising specific questions about its workability as well as broader regional issues such as Iran’s refusal to recognize Israel.

The go-to man for Congress on the details about Iran’s nuclear program is US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, a nuclear scientist and former physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The affable physicist, who is playing a key role in the international negotiations, has become a layman’s translator for all things nuclear.

In a Monitor breakfast with reporters on Monday, he pledged to be 'completely open' with Congress and addressed several issues raised by skeptics: 

The scope of a deal, or even no deal. The Obama administration and its international partners are limiting the negotiations specifically to the issue of Iran’s nuclear capability – not larger concerns, as some lawmakers want.

For instance, several Republicans this week are expected to introduce unrelated “poison-pill” amendments to the Iran bill. One would require Tehran to recognize Israel. Another would require the administration to certify that Iran is not supporting terrorist activities against the United States. 

Secretary Moniz did not directly speak to those points, but commented that dealing with a nuclear Iran, or even one on the threshold of nuclear capability, would make it a lot harder to address other problems involving Iran than dealing with an Iran without that capability. 

As for those who seek to scuttle a nuclear agreement altogether, Moniz said the world failed to follow through on a tough deal with Tehran a decade ago, when Iran had less than 200 centrifuges and virtually no enriched uranium. Now it has nearly 20,000 centrifuges and 10,000 kilograms of enriched uranium.

Failure to completely dismantle the Fordow nuclear site. Some lawmakers are upset that the framework agreement with Iran announced on April 2 leaves the once covert site of Fordow in place, though it would be converted to only peaceful nuclear research. 

Moniz pointed out that Fordow would be “shut down” as a nuclear enrichment facility, and could not do even nuclear enrichment research and development. It will be subject to continuous surveillance. “We have complete confidence in its not being an enrichment site,” he said.  

Only a one-year “breakout” period. Requiring Iran to stay at least one year away from acquiring enough fuel to make a nuclear weapon is not a long enough time period, critics say. 

Moniz emphasized that the breakout time is calculated by using only US estimates, and that those calculations are not shared with the Iranians. He described the calculations as “conservative,” as is the definition of breakout – not the time to get to a nuclear weapon, but to the fuel required to get to a first weapon.

Inspections and sanctions. There’s an obvious disconnect between Washington and Tehran on these two key issues. Washington says inspectors should be able to go to any location of suspicion; Tehran says military bases are off limits. Washington says sanctions relief will come as Tehran demonstrates it is living up to an agreement; Tehran wants immediate relief.

Moniz was less definitive on these issues. On inspections, he said “there will be a process in place” for showing reasons to access an area. No one or two countries would be able to block that process. “Clearly, verification will require access to any place where there is a sound reason for suspicion.”

As for sanctions – a direct concern for Congress, which has voted to impose sanctions and whose eventual approval will be needed to lift them – it’s “no secret” that sanctions relief is one of the issues still to be worked out, Moniz said.  

But in the end, “we plan to be completely open to the members because that’s what they’re going to need to look at.”

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