Ernest Moniz: Obama's MVP on Selling Iran Deal

Ernest Moniz: Obama's MVP on Selling Iran Deal
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Ernest Moniz, nuclear physicist and former MIT professor heading the Department of Energy, landed a role above his typical job description in February when he became a key negotiator of the historic nuclear agreement with Iran.

Now, the White House has dispatched Moniz a little closer to home: he’s been spending his days on Capitol Hill, using his scientific expertise to press lawmakers to support the agreement he played a crucial role in negotiating.  

Moniz has held classified briefings with the full Senate and full House and with House Democrats, plus two public hearings and individual and small-group meetings with lawmakers eager to pepper the energy secretary with questions on the nitty-gritty technical details of the nuclear agreement. So far, lawmakers seem impressed.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said a briefing with Moniz, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew last week was one of the most helpful he’s taken part in as a senator. He said the questions were hard, but it wasn’t contentious, and all three secretaries did a good job responding. But he singled out Moniz, calling him “particularly impressive” and “very factual and forthright.”

“Ernie, I consider a true expert,” King said after leaving the briefing. “It’s extraordinary that at this particular moment in time we have a real nuclear physicist in charge of the Department of Energy.”

Moniz, Kerry and Lew have spent much of the past two weeks on Capitol Hill, trying to drum up support for the agreement, including a four-hour hearing Tuesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congress has 60 days to review the agreement, starting early last week, before members can vote to approve or disapprove of the deal by mid-September. A vote of disapproval seems likely, and President Obama would veto that, making every single supporter crucial to preventing a veto from being overridden and the deal from being blocked. That’s what makes the respect Moniz gets from members of Congress so critical to his role.

Several lawmakers echoed King’s statement that Moniz is truly a nuclear expert – which should probably come as little surprise, given the decades he spent on the faculty of the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including as the head of the department and as the director of the Bates Linear Accelerator Center. What makes him so helpful to lawmakers, however, is his ability to communicate to non-scientists.

“The thing that’s so great about Secretary Moniz as one of the world’s premier atomic scientists [is] he’s a good, understandable communicator,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said after a briefing last week. Moniz is especially adept at answering clumsily worded technical questions, Schakowsky added. “I think his presence there is a real confidence-builder that we are way on top of the science of all this.”

Many members who are hesitant on the deal need that confidence, given they have little to no experience with nuclear science – though Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California joked with RealClearPolitics that a lot of opponents of the deal think themselves nuclear experts. Questions posed to Moniz have centered on the very technical, and persistent concerns for lawmakers are the inspections process and making sure Iran isn’t cheating on the agreement.

Part of the deal lays out a 24-day process for the inspectors to look at unauthorized facilities, and many lawmakers criticized this time frame, concerned Iran would be able to hide its cheating in those three-plus weeks. Repeatedly, Moniz has been adamant that any nuclear activity would be detectable even during that time frame.

That hasn’t answered all the questions, though. During the hearing Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania asked Moniz about the inspections timeline – he was one of the few members of Congress to direct his questions to Moniz, with the majority going to Kerry about the political implications of the deal. Boyle said he’d asked the White House and Obama the question, but they had referred him to Moniz. He told RCP he’d been waiting more than a week to ask about the 24-day period.  

Moniz reiterated inspectors would be able to detect any nuclear activity during that time frame, though he conceded that other aspects of the program that didn’t deal with nuclear substances could be easier to hide. Boyle said the answer added to some of his concerns about the deal, but he praised Moniz on his ability to field questions.

“Having him in the room with his technical expertise, I’ve found very helpful and very important,” Boyle said.

Feinstein said she thinks Moniz is actually better in small settings. She told RCP there had been two dinners with small groups of senators and Moniz, and that those had elicited the best responses.  

“People are more willing to ask questions of a complicated subject in a small group than they are in a big hearing,” Feinstein said. “None of us can be expected to know all of the ins and outs of uranium and plutonium and whether it can be detected or can’t be detected … and he can.”

Technically, however, not everyone in Congress lacks nuclear expertise. Democratic Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois, who has a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard, has been studying the technical aspects of the deal very carefully. Foster said he’s known Moniz for more than two decades.

Foster agreed Moniz is exceptionally good at distilling complicated information. “He has that skill of summarizing things correctly and understandably. That is something I always struggle with, and he’s at least as good as I am at it,” Foster said. “He’s very well respected in science and has turned out to be a very incredible spokesman and, apparently, a diplomat as well.”

Not everyone is pleased, however, that Moniz tends to speak in laymen’s terms. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said he’s been concerned about Iran’s nuclear program since he came to Congress in 1997 and wished Moniz would speak with a little more detail.

“He’s articulate and he knows his physics,” Sherman said. “He does not try to explain the details to us. In other words, you’d have to know he was a physicist – we give him the respect as a leading physicist, but it’s not like he’s teaching us any physics.”

Much of the focus of the debate is on Democrats, given that Republicans are nearly unanimous in their opposition to the agreement, and it will be Democratic votes that determine whether Congress blocks it or lets it become implemented. Even so, Republicans are as impressed with Moniz as their Democratic colleagues.

“Thus far, he’s by far been the best witness, the best person to talk to,” Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters shortly after the deal had been announced. “There are components of the deal that he cannot speak to, but the things he can speak to, he certainly comes here with a great deal of credibility.”

Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who opposes the agreement, left the House briefing last week complaining about Secretary’s Kerry speaking from a position of “moral authority, which I don’t accept.” But he praised Moniz.

“He’s very much the scientist; he was good. I’m not saying whether I agreed or disagreed, I’m just saying Moniz was ‘just the facts,’ man … ” King said. Asked if Moniz was speaking in highly technical terms, King joked, “Certainly more technical than I am. I barely made it through high school chemistry so he’s certainly more technical than I can be.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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