Two nuclear scientists — one American, one Iranian — face off to tackle the vast technical issues that lie beneath the political disagreements overshadowing a potential Iran nuclear deal.
LAUSANNE, Switzerland — At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the mid-1970s, Ernest Moniz was an up-and-coming nuclear scientist in search of tenure, and Ali Akbar Salehi, an Iranian graduate student, was finishing a dissertation on fast-neutron reactors.
The two did not know each other, but they followed similar paths once they left the campus: Moniz went on to become one of the nation’s most respected nuclear physicists and is President Obama’s energy secretary. Salehi, who was part of the last wave of Iranians to conduct nuclear studies at elite U.S. universities, returned to an Iran in revolution and rose to oversee the country’s nuclear program.
Forty years later, they are facing off in one-on-one talks as March 31 deadline approaches for a nuclear deal that could be one of the most important, and disputed, international accords in decades.
Moniz and Salehi have emerged as their countries’ No. 2 negotiators, two atomic diplomats taking on the vast technical issues that lie beneath the political disagreements. Their roles as deputies to the chief negotiators — Secretary of State John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister — signal the two sides are down to the hardest issues about the kind of nuclear infrastructure Iran will be permitted to retain, and in recent days, those discussions have hit major roadblocks.
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The two had met only once before, in Vienna, more than a decade ago. But in the past five weeks, they have negotiated alone for more than 20 hours.
“We have a good rapport,” Moniz said in the living room of his Lausanne suite, overlooking Lake Geneva. Over time, he said, Salehi has dropped his formality (Moniz calls him Ali), and the two now disappear for hours at a time into the conference rooms at the Beau-Rivage Palace hotel.
The question is whether it is possible to dismantle enough of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to assure the United States and its allies that they would have enough warning to stop Iran if it tried to build a nuclear bomb.
In a sign the negotiators are getting closer to an initial agreement that would define the main elements of an accord, foreign ministers from the other world powers involved in the talks have begun arriving in Lausanne.
“The endgame of the long negotiations has begun,” said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister. “The final meters are the most difficult but also the decisive ones.”
Suited for the jobs
Moniz, 70, understands his role well: He is providing not only technical expertise but also political cover for Kerry. If a framework agreement is reached in the next few days, it will be Moniz who will have to vouch to a suspicious Congress, to Israel and to Arab allies that Iran would be incapable of assembling the raw material for a single nuclear weapon in less than a year.
“It wouldn’t mean much coming from Kerry,” said a member of the administration deeply in the strategy. “The theory is that Ernie’s judgment on that matter is unassailable.”
Salehi, 66, will have his own problems selling an agreement to the generals and clerics in Iran, many of whom are suspicious of Iran’s Western-educated negotiators and will have to be convinced that Iran has not backed down in the face of U.S. demands. In recent days, Salehi has taken a positive tone in public, suggesting that all technical disputes with the United States have been resolved, a move some U.S. officials interpret as an effort to put the blame squarely on the U.S. if the talks fail.
“For both sides, there are big questions of optics and politics here,” Moniz said.
Salehi and Moniz converged a little more than a month ago in the increasingly tense talks, brought together after the Iranians announced that Salehi, a former foreign minister who represented Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, would have a seat at the negotiating table. It was a telling move: Salehi is considered close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and behind the scenes in Tehran, he had just killed a U.S. proposal to reconfigure Iran’s centrifuges in a way that would have made them far less capable of producing enriched uranium.
Soon, Moniz received a call from the White House: He would become Kerry’s negotiating partner.
Moniz was suited for the job: After becoming energy secretary nearly two years ago, he brought in scientists from the United States’ national laboratories to work out options to present to the Iranians, based in part on a secret replica of Iran’s facilities that the United States built when it was mapping out cyberattacks against them during the Bush administration.
“Ernie loves to sit with these technical experts and challenge their conclusions,” said Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the deputy energy secretary. “The scary thing is that I often see him doing the math in his head.”
Moniz’s arrival has, by all accounts, changed the dynamic of the negotiating sessions. “Occasionally, a scientist drops into the government at just the right time, with just the right expertise,” said John Deutch, a former director of the CIA who appointed Moniz years ago as the head of MIT’s nuclear-physics laboratory. “And that’s what’s happened here.”
The Moniz-Salehi talks are a way to separate the heated arguments over sanctions and national sovereignty from a far more technical discussion that only two nuclear scientists could love.
They have spent much of their time in recent days arguing about the type and power of the advanced centrifuges Iran says it wants to continue developing during the 10 or more years of an agreement, one of the last stumbling blocks in the talks.
“We spend a lot of time on SWU,” Moniz said, referring to separative work units — the acronym is pronounced “swoo” in nuclear-speak — which underlie all the calculations about how long it would take Iran to produce a single bomb’s worth of enriched uranium. It is not the favorite subject of many State Department diplomats.
Moniz has also contacted his vast network of nuclear scientists in the United States, giving them classified briefings about the details of the talks. His hope is that they will provide technical validation to Congress and nervous allies that the plan negotiated with Iran will give enough warning time to head off an Iranian race for a nuclear weapon with economic pressure or, if need be, a bombing run.
This weekend, Salehi and Moniz continued their talks, mostly attempting to resolve the dispute about whether research on new centrifuges will take Iran too close to bomb-making capability.
But they are clearly bound by an old school tie: Salehi recently became a grandfather for the first time, and Moniz showed up with baby gifts, each embossed with the MIT logo.