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If I were Israeli, I’d support nuclear deal, says top US official

Iran agreement ‘does not change one iota who our friends and allies are in the region,’ Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz tells Israeli reporters

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at a Washington briefing on July 31, 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at a Washington briefing on July 31, 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

WASHINGTON — US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz would support the nuclear deal with Iran even if he were Israeli, he said Monday.

Asked by Israeli reporters whether he would still back the agreement if he analyzed it from an Israeli perspective, Moniz, who helped negotiate the controversial pact, answered in the affirmative, adding that “a fair amount” of the Israeli public may share this assessment.

“But clearly, [the nuclear deal] is part of a bigger issue in terms of how we are going to address our collective security requirements in the region,” he said. “This is an important tool for us to do that, by taking the existential threat off the table.”

Speaking to the Israel Diplomatic Correspondents Association in his office at the Department of Energy, Moniz defended the nuclear accord, and asserted that it does not herald an American pivot toward Iran or a weakening of Washington’s bond with Jerusalem.

“Make no mistake about it: This agreement does not change one iota who our friends and allies are in the region. It’s Israel, it’s the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], and maybe a couple of other Arab states in region. Those are our friends and allies,” Moniz said. “Iran does not move out of the box unless support for terrorism is addressed. That includes Hezbollah, obviously; unless activities increasing regional instability are addressed; unless human rights issue are addressed… and in my personal view that the rhetoric around Israel changes dramatically.”

Moniz — a former nuclear physicist and one of the administration’s top negotiators with Iran — denied the existence of any secret side agreements with the Iran, as reported last month. Rather, he said that a confidential safeguard agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency was “completely standard practice.”

The six world powers who signed the deal with Tehran ensured that the IAEA get the access it needs and the rest is between these two parties, Moniz said.

“We in the negotiations got the IAEA access. Then what they do is negotiate, as is always the case, safeguard confidential protocols on how those [inspections] are carried out. It’s not our job to do that,” he said. “This has always happened, the only way those documents are released outside the IAEA leadership is if the country involved gives permission for its release.”

Some 25 years ago, the IAEA dismantled South Africa’s nuclear weapons program, he said. “Those documents have always stayed confidential.”

Responding to a question by The Times of Israel, on why Moniz said on April 20 that he expects the final agreement to include so-called “anytime, anywhere” inspections, which did not end up being part of the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action signed last month, he said that his statement was taken out of context. He asserted that he never aimed at securing so intrusive an inspections regime.

“Nothing has changed,” he said about the American negotiating position regarding the inspection regimes. When he spoke of “anytime, anywhere” inspections, he meant inspections that would establish “a well-defined process with a well-defined end time,” he said. “This is standard practice.”

US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz briefing Israeli reporters on the nuclear deal with Iran in his Washington office, August 3, 2015 (photo credit: courtesy IDCA)
US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz briefing Israeli reporters on the nuclear deal with Iran in his Washington office, August 3, 2015 (photo credit: courtesy IDCA)

Rebutting criticism that the deal gives Iran 24 days to hide illicit nuclear activity in hitherto undeclared sites, Moniz said this is actually a very short time in which it is impossible to hide any handling of enriched material.

“Frankly, just about anybody is coming to accept the idea that work with nuclear materials is extremely difficult to cover up in that time period, and we have both classified and unclassified information to back up that statement,” he said.

The much discussed 24-day period is actually the first time a nuclear agreement sets a defined end time to a country’s ability to drag out and refuse inspectors access, Moniz said. In previous such agreements, countries suspected of activity illegal under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty could endlessly refuse to let inspectors into the sites they fear could host nuclear activity.

“What we have done, for the first time, is have a finite period,” the energy secretary said. So if the IAEA is not getting [Iran’s] cooperation, it makes a formal request for access. That starts the 24-day clock.”

There are other clandestine actions Iran could undertake to further its nuclear weapons program that will be much harder to detect, especially if they are removed from actual nuclear material, he said.

“Obviously, computer modeling of nuclear explosives is something you’re going to get by a swipe test, for example. You’d have to use other methods. Our intelligence agencies — and I use our broadly — the IAEA inspectors do have other tools to use. But clearly, nuclear material utilization provides the clearest detection opportunities, and I do remind you certainly are not going to go all the way to a bomb without using nuclear materials.”

A delegation of the Israel Diplomatic Correspondents Association is currently in Washington for a series of briefings with senior administration officials, US lawmakers and Jewish community officials to learn more about the discussion surrounding the Iran deal and other issues of importance to the bilateral relations. The weeklong trip, the first of its kind, was funded by the Ruderman Family Foundation. The meetings were arranged independently by the IDCA.

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