WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is concerned that Iran will increase backing for terrorism and other disruptive activities in the wake of the nuclear deal, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said in an address to American Jews.
At the same time, Moniz, a key figure in the negotiations with Iran, touted the pact as “the famous better deal,” rebuffing criticism from some corners of the US and in Israel that a more robust agreement can still be negotiated.
“We are concerned about some possible escalation in their support for terrorism, meddling in the region in terms of stability,” Moniz said Thursday in a webcast organized by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “Obviously Hezbollah terrorism is an example.”
Obama administration officials have acknowledged under congressional questioning that part of the at least $56 billion that will be freed up in the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal reached last month between Iran and six major powers could be directed toward Iranian disruptive activity.
But the concern expressed by Moniz, a top negotiator at the talks, was unusual in that, unprompted, he said directly that the administration anticipates an increase in terrorist activity. He also said the regime’s rhetoric on Jews and Israel was a concern.
“We find extremely bothersome to put it mildly the strong anti-Israel, anti-Semitic rhetoric coming out of Iran,” he said.
Moniz also cited the prospect of increased Iranian disruption in Syria and Yemen.
The energy secretary told listeners that the agreement reached with Iran in July will enable the US to focus on “other aspects of Iranian behavior that give us serious problems,” such as its state sponsorship of terror and regional destabilization, as well as its continued detention of four American citizens.
Addressing these issues “with the comfort that Iran does not have and will not have a nuclear weapon — the existential threat of a nuclear weapon — will, if anything, give us more freedom of action,” he said.
Like two other webcasts held in recent weeks – one with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff, the other featuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the briefing to over 2,000 viewers was meant to reach out to the members of the Jewish community, which itself is divided over its opinions on the deal.
Most of Moniz’s message was dedicated to what he knows best – a scientific analysis of the technical aspects of the Iran deal.
The former physics professor spoke in detail about the steps being taken by Iran to ensure that its nuclear program is only available for civilian use, and about the reliability of the inspections and verification procedures in place under the agreement.
“Every dimension of this agreement beats the expectations,” Moniz proclaimed. “This is already the famous better deal. We have it in front of us,” added the usually least-confrontational member of the administration’s deal-selling team.
Moniz said that he “has not heard a credible Plan B,” and that the idea of forcing Iran back to the table to negotiate by reimposing sanctions – an idea advocated by a number of the deal’s congressional opponents and Republican presidential candidates – is “the riskiest strategy that I can imagine.”
Moniz estimated that Iran’s current timeline to nuclear breakout is “about two months to assemble the nuclear material for a weapon,” but that under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it would be “around one year” for the next 15 years.
“The bottom line is Iran today is what we call a threshold state — it may not have a weapon today, but it has the capabilities and is very close to getting there if they choose to do so,” he said. “This agreement pulls them way back from that threshold for a substantial period.”
Moniz’s comments come in the midst of a bitter policy fight between the deal’s supporters and opponents, as Congress prepares to take a vote on the agreement when it returns from recess in September.
The American Jewish public has been a key battleground in recent weeks, with senior officials of assorted Jewish organizations representing both sides of the argument making public appeals to the community.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is campaigning against the deal, on Thursday issued a memo noting opposition to the deal from six former top military and security officials. Backers of the deal had earlier this week released a letter from 36 former top military officials in support of the deal.
Jacob Lew, the Treasury secretary, argued in an Op-Ed to appear Friday in The New York Times that walking away from the deal in hopes of increasing leverage against Iran was a “dangerous fantasy.”
“In the eyes of the world, the nuclear agreement — endorsed by the United Nations Security Council and more than 90 other countries — addresses the threat of Iran’s nuclear program by constraining it for the long term and ensuring that it will be exclusively peaceful,” Lew wrote. “If Congress now rejects this deal, the elements that were fundamental in establishing that international consensus will be gone.”
Separately on Thursday, current and former Democrats on the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee who support the deal wrote their colleagues a letter saying they were confident it sufficiently constrained Iran.
“During our entire service on the Intelligence Committee, we have made it a top priority to monitor Iran’s nuclear program, its missile development, and its nefarious activities in the region and beyond,” said the letter initiated by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee and one of Congress’ Jewish members.
“We have done so because we recognize the imperative – for the United States and our allies, including Israel – that Iran never obtain a nuclear weapon,” the letter said. “You can be assured that these efforts will not only continue under the agreement but intensify.”