Obama's big brain on Iran

Obama's big brain on Iran
© Greg Nash

President Obama’s secret weapon in the last days of nuclear negotiations with Iran is Energy Secretary Ernest MonizErnest Jeffrey MonizOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Obama marine monument designation | Interior reverses course on tribal ownership of portion of Missouri river | White House climate adviser meets with oil and gas companies Moniz: Texas blackouts show need to protect infrastructure against climate change The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Back to the future on immigration, Afghanistan, Iran MORE, a nuclear physicist and the administration’s big brain in the talks. 

Moniz, who taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for four decades before joining the administration, is now serving as Secretary of State John Kerry’s right-hand man.


He’s currently in Switzerland to advise the United States’ delegation in the days leading to the March 31 deadline for an agreement. He’s providing technical details on nuclear weapon enrichment and, more importantly, making sure Kerry’s team isn’t outsmarted by the Iranian delegation.

Moniz’ first trip to the negotiating table was in late February, just over a month after his unique, angular coif went viral after the State of the Union address and was named “best hair” of the speech by USA Today.

It’s unclear how Moniz’s hair is playing in the negotiating room, but what’s underneath it is a deep knowledge of federal research on how Iran could build a nuclear weapon and what the United States and its allies could do to prevent it.

The first of Moniz’s four trips started Feb. 21, when Kerry summoned him to Switzerland for backup.

The call came after the U.S. delegation realized that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, was bringing Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, into the talks. Kerry wanted to make sure that he had an expert of his own.

“To a large extent, it was a measure taken since the Iranians brought Salehi to the nuclear talks,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council.

“Because the talks were getting so technical and so scientific ... it would not have been beneficial if the Iranians had an ace like Salehi on their side, but the Americans did not have a strong counterpart on their side,” said Parsi, who has been traveling to Switzerland to track the talks.

Breakout is the amount of time it would take for Iran to enrich enough nuclear fuel to build a weapon. The United States wants Iran to reduce its nuclear capabilities so that it would take a full year before it is capable of refining enough fuel for a weapon.

The early outlines of the deal have stirred alarm in Congress, with members of both parties questioning whether it would close off Iran’s path to the bomb.

If a deal is reached, it could fall on Moniz to try to sell lawmakers on the technical aspects of the agreement, including how it would restrain Iran’s nuclear program going forward.

Salehi, as it would happen, earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics MIT when Moniz was starting his teaching career there. A State Department spokeswoman said that to the best of Moniz’s knowledge, the two never crossed paths, despite being in the same department with shared academic interests.

The Obama administration said the interactions between Moniz and Salehi have been positive.

“I would say the discussions with him have been very, very professional,” a senior administration official told reporters earlier in March at one of the negotiating meetings.

The official added that the talks have been “fruitful, in terms of, again, identifying the technical issues, clarifying them, sharpening them, and looking at what are the options on the table for a potential agreement.”

The Energy Department has been involved in efforts to reduce Iran’s nuclear capabilities for years, a spokeswoman said. Moniz’s involvement is only the latest example.

“Before Moniz got directly involved, DOE subject matter experts have been involved in providing extensive technical contributions over the course of these negotiations,” the spokeswoman said.

Parsi said the high level of technical expertise at the table gives him hope that a positive, meaningful agreement will be reached.

“It seems that raising the level of scientific expertise in the negotiations actually has been helpful, because it’s been easier to create more creative solutions once you actually have full control of the science,” Parsi said.