National Security

Congress’s only physicist wrestling with Iran nuclear deal

There’s only one physicist in Congress, and he still hasn’t decided whether or not to oppose the nuclear deal with Iran.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) holds a doctorate in physics from Harvard University and spent 22 years working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, during which time he helped to discover the world’s heaviest elementary particle: the top quark.

With the Iranian nuclear agreement deal now before Congress, Foster still has a few lingering questions, he told The Hill, and wants to refrain from weighing in too quickly.

“I’m still undecided,” Foster said in an interview on Friday. “As the last Ph.D. scientist in Congress, I sort of feel a special responsibility to really carefully study the technical aspects of the agreement.”

“My first concern is that there not be a grievous technical flaw. It does no one any good if we approve a deal and then there’s a loophole that the Iranians drive a truck through,” he added.

However, “so far I’ve been very impressed at the technical competence of our team.”

Scrutiny over the Iran deal has been pressing hard on lawmakers in both parties this summer, ahead of a mid-September vote that is guaranteed to be among the most consequential of their political careers.

But Foster has a singular mastery of the technical components of the deal on Capitol Hill, and his experience wrangling with the issues underscores the complex science involved in the landmark accord. 

Though he declined to say if he was leaning one way or the other, Foster’s reluctance to endorse the deal as of yet appeared to be based more out of a desire to do robust double-checking of all of the administration’s points than a signal of profound doubt about its ability to be effective.

Before Congress went on the summer recess this month, Foster’s colleagues’ eyes would occasionally gloss over when he and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz — whom Foster has known for roughly two decades — got into tête-à-têtes about the intricacies of the deal during closed-door briefings.

”They can have a conversation that gets a little wonky,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said at the time.

Multiple colleagues on Capitol Hill have sought him out because of his expertise, Foster said, to translate some of the deal’s arcane scientific jargon into plain English.

“There’s part of this analysis that is technical and part of it that is diplomatic and psychological,” he said.

“The technical analysis I can help other members with,” he added. “The diplomatic analysis, the estimate that every member has to make of what the world looks like if we vote this agreement down or vote for it to proceed, that’s something that every member has to answer for himself or herself.”

House Democrats are considered crucial for President Obama in the fight over the Iran deal. With Republicans expected to unite in opposition to the deal, the White House can afford to lose no more than 43 Democrats in the House to uphold Obama’s veto of a bill to kill it, should it come to that.

Despite a handful of setbacks for the president, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reaffirmed her belief on Friday that members of the president’s party will be there when he needs them.

“I feel confident that we will sustain the president’s veto, and we will all work together to hold Iran accountable to honoring the agreement,” she wrote in a letter to fellow House Democrats.

Still, there is a long road to climb. Just 60 of the 146 Democrats needed to sustain a veto have pledged to vote in favor of the deal. A dozen have promised to oppose it. 

Foster told The Hill that he is hoping to finalize his decision within the next two weeks, after discussions with experts at Argonne National Laboratory, among others. 

The lingering questions, he said, center on whether or not Iran truly will be one year away from being able to develop a nuclear weapon if it decided to abandon the deal — as the administration has claimed — as well as assurances about international monitoring efforts.

Foster said he was untroubled by the Associated Press report this week outlining the terms of one secret so-called “side deal” between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agreement places primary responsibility for inspecting past weaponization work at the Parchin military facility with Iran, a fact that Republican critics said amounted to allowing the fox to guard the hen house. 

Iran’s nuclear weapons work at Parchin is believed to have been halted a decade ago, and Foster said that U.S. intelligence agencies have all the information they need to know about its history there. 

“We do know a lot about what they did, and members that have been asking for and receiving classified briefings on this will agree,” he said.

“There’s a separate question as to the extent to which Iran should be publicly shamed for this,” he added, which “would be nice, but it’s a diplomatic consideration rather than one where you look at their capabilities.”

If the deal is approved, Foster said he hoped it would cause the globe to beef up its efforts to clamp down on nuclear weapons.

By the time the terms of the deal run out in a decade, he hoped, the world should work to have in place “a much stronger regime to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.”


Tags Bill Foster Ernest Moniz

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