U.S. Energy Secretary: Deal Keeps Iran Further Away From A Nuclear Weapon

U.S. Energy Secretary: Deal Keeps Iran Further Away From A Nuclear Weapon

3:48pm Jul 16, 2015

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Back in April when president Obama called the nuclear deal the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, he cited our next guest, Ernest Moniz, as an authority.


BARACK OBAMA: That's not my opinion. That's the opinion of people like Ernie Moniz, my secretary of energy, who is a physicist from MIT and actually knows something about this stuff.

SIEGEL: The energy secretary's wisdom in these matters was also acknowledged by the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker. He said this about Ernest Moniz. What he says to me matters more than what some of the politically oriented folks in the administration say. Well, Secretary Moniz, who was an important player in the negotiations, joins us now from the Department of Energy. Welcome to the program.

ERNEST MONIZ: Thank you.

SIEGEL: You've got a tough sales job ahead of you on Capitol Hill. What do you say to critics who say this agreement may set Iran's nuclear program back several years, freeze it for 15 years, but at the end of 15 years, Iran is a nuclear threshold state with nothing but its own declared policy preventing it from building weapons?

MONIZ: Well, first of all, I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it. Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it's in enrichment, whether it's in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it's in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today. And when I say that we will always be in a better position forever, it is because, in fact, Iran commits to staying in what's called the additional protocol in enhancement of national safeguards arrangements with the international inspector agency forever, as long as they are in the Non-proliferation Treaty.

SIEGEL: Earlier this year, you told a Bloomberg interviewer, we expected to have anywhere, anytime access to Iranian sites. It looks like what you had to settle for is access to military sites within 24 days after a request is made. Critics don't see that as a trivial difference. Do you?

MONIZ: First of all, I think it's very important we complete the sentence of what I'm pretty sure I said to the Bloomberg reporter. I said anytime, anywhere access in the sense of having a well-defined process over a finite time period to resolve the issues. So that's what anytime means. It's still what it means. As you've said, the time period that I was referring to then is 24 days, anywhere. And I might add that, you know, if we are suspecting nuclear materials being used, I can assure you, we have very, very strong confidence in being able to detect that if it is the case, even given the 24 days.

SIEGEL: In the business of nuclear engineering and enrichment, what does 24 days mean? I mean, can a country dismantle and hide something consequential in 24 days these days?

MONIZ: I think the issue, as I say for - is that if one is using nuclear materials, it is very hard to clean up nuclear materials at the level of detection that is available to the inspectors from IAEA today. So again, nuclear material utilization, I think, would be quite detectable. I might also add that in contrast to the Lausanne agreement in early April, we have also made progress in terms of Iran not engaging in other kinds of activities that would be required for developing a nuclear explosive device.

SIEGEL: One measure of Iran's progress toward a bomb has been supposedly the number of centrifuges it has. Under the agreement, the number goes down from 19,000 to just over 6,000. What is the point of Iran maintaining 6,000 centrifuges if it's not to retain the capacity to enrich uranium to weapons grade sometime in the future?

MONIZ: Well, Iran's statement is that they are developing towards a commercial nuclear fuel cycle, which is certainly an allowed activity under the Non-proliferation Treaty. Now, I think that to get into that commercial scale, they will have to eventually be able to deploy more advanced centrifuges. So what I would say, is that, you know, the centrifuges they will continue to be operating are part of the learning curve going to more advanced machines later on.

SIEGEL: Critics of the deal say there are many countries that have nuclear energy and that don't enrich their own uranium. Iran could be one of them. That was, at one point, seen as a possible outcome of the deal. Would that have been a better deal? Was it a possible deal to achieve?

MONIZ: Well, in general, I would say that we are interested in having as few countries engaged in different parts of the fuel cycle, be it enrichment or reprocessing, that could be used to develop weapons material. So sure, I mean, that's something that is a very, very generally held view. I remind you that there were negotiations well over a decade ago that were not carried through. In the meantime, the ground truth is Iran has established a very substantial capacity, and they seem to be nationally committed to trying to have an indigenous fuel supply for their reactors. So do I think we could have had an arrangement without any commitment to enrichment at all? Probably not.

SIEGEL: Secretary Moniz, thank you very much for talking with us.

MONIZ: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Ernest Moniz, U.S. secretary of energy and a negotiator of the nuclear deal with Iran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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