WASHINGTON — The current deal with Iran is, in fact “the famous better deal,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told over 2,000 viewers during a Thursday afternoon webcast with American Jews in defense of the controversial nuclear agreement with Iran.
After the Obama administration made headlines for its hard sell of the Iran nuclear deal, Moniz generated few fireworks during his virtual briefing of the US Jewish community, which was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Moniz 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.
But he also said the Obama administration was concerned that Iran will increase backing for terrorism and other disruptive activities in the wake of the nuclear deal.
“We are concerned about some possible escalation in their support for terrorism, meddling in the region in terms of stability,” Moniz said. “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.
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 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 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 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 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’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.
JTA contributed to this report