Of course two MIT alums got the ball rolling to the Iran nuclear deal

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[Excerpt from the opening song of The World]


Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH here in Boston. You know that nuclear deal with Iran that took more than a decade to reach? Not easy to get there, but now the hard work really starts. President Obama has to sell it to Congress, where he’ll hear from plenty of outspoken critics. But US lawmakers aren’t the only skeptics. In a few minutes, we’ll hear from one Israeli who calls the deal “a farce.” Before that though, let’s take a closer look at how that deal actually happened. In fact, if not for two MIT-trained nuclear scientists, we might not have any deal at all. Current US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was one of those scientists brought into the talks. His Iranian counterpart was the other. Moniz told me that, simply put, the diplomats got to the point in the negotiations where they needed some nuclear scientists.


Ernest Moniz: To reach an agreement, there were a whole set of issues with a considerable technical dimension that had to be resolved. And so I think that Dr. Salehi and I joining the talks as head,roughly speaking, of the major nuclear organizations in the two governments were able to move forward, resolve some of the technical issues, and that then I think helped the foreign ministers, including John Kerry, to move forward on other issues that, of course, were equally important.


Werman: Right, Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, your Iranian counterpart. Did you trust your counterpart at the talks.


Moniz: Well, first of all we did share, as you probably know, a background at MIT. We didn’t know each other, but it did help to establish a relationship. We were able to I think get quickly into what I would the MIT problem solving approach. So, we were able to march through quite a few issues, and to do so with a lot of specificity that I think will position the next 90 days of talks quite well.


Werman: Right, so now you’re back in Washington. When you try to sell the idea of the Iran deal to legislators on Capitol Hill, what’s your elevator pitch, especially for those lawmakers who really can’t get past the politics?


Moniz: Well first of all, I think at a very high level it’s very important to understand that the parameters that we established for the agreement are not based upon trust, that’s not where we’re starting from. It’s based upon verification. So, an enormous part of the agreement are rather exceptional measures that will enhance access and transparency. That’s number one. Number two, we had to address all of the potential pathways to a nuclear weapon. That includes uranium pathways through enrichment, it includes plutonium pathways through the research reactor that they’re planning to build. It also includes the covert pathways, which of course circles right back to the issues of access and transparency, not only to declare nuclear sites but also to other sites that might be suspect and require access.


Werman: You’ve called this the “Forever Accord,” but there are stipulations in the deal for certain parts of it to expire in 10 years, some in 15, some in 20. Why do you see this as almost permanent?


Moniz: Well no, what I said is it’s forever in the sense that there are some provisions that go on forever. No reprocessing of nuclear reactor fuel forever, for example; shipping out fuel from that reactor for the entire lifetime of the reactor. The intent is that Iran will have, again, the opportunity to convince everyone over time that they, in fact, have strictly peaceful purposes in mind in their nuclear program.


Werman: So, a lot of false departures from the Hotel Beau Rivage in the last days of the negotiations there in Lausson, some political theater perhaps. I’m curious, how many times did you have to pack and repack your bags at the hotel?


Moniz: Oh, it was a few times, but...


Werman: Did you lose count?


Moniz: I would say it was probably two or three. But look, there were some very, very tough issues, there’s no question around it. I think it was very professional, as I said. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t very tense at certain times. Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel was thought to be an oncoming train, and other times it was viewed to be the exit to a solution. Fortunately in the last couple of days we were able to converge to what I think is certainly a very good deal for us in terms of our key objectives, but also it’s a good deal for Iran in the sense that it gets this opportunity to develop nuclear power, assuming that the terms of the agreement--which still has to be finalized in 90 days--assuming those terms are, in fact, followed.


Werman: US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz there.