The Hidden Star of Obama’s Cabinet

There’s a lot more to Ernest Moniz that that haircut. In fact, he just might be our best hope to avoid war with Iran.


Energy secretary Ernest Moniz has trouble passing for a bureaucrat. With longish wavy gray hair and a cherubic smile, he looks like he could be cast as the genius scientist in a sci-fi movie.

But don’t be fooled. This Stanford-trained MIT nuclear physicist knows the ways of Washington. He is President Obama’s secret weapon to convince Congress and the American public that should the administration reach a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear ambition, it is a deal worthy of their support.

When a reporter noted at a breakfast meeting in Washington organized by the Christian Science Monitor last Monday that his relationship with Congress is pretty good and asked how he does it, Moniz made it sound easy.

“Maintaining open communications channels and using them early and often helps,” he said. He happily testifies before the relevant House and Senate committees on energy and national security, and his briefings for members on the Iran deal have been widely attended, particularly in the senate. “I didn’t do a count, but north of 90 members” were there, he said.

“We plan to be completely open,” he said. “No secrets here,” he insisted, pointing to the issues about the phasing of sanctions relief that surfaced once negotiations resumed again after the initial euphoria of the framework agreement. One by one, in scientific and also layman’s language, he addressed the concerns most often raised by critics. First on inspection, there will be access anywhere where there are grounds for suspicion, he said, including military bases. A process in place will “not be blockable by any one or two countries.”

Second, he said there would be no enrichment and no enrichment R & D at Fordow, a key Iranian nuclear site. “Assuming an agreement is completed, Fordow is shut down,” Moniz said. Third, he said the breakout time of one year should Iran decide to build a nuclear bomb is “completely based on our calculations, not their calculations, and we do not share with them the calculations” except in the most general way. “Our numbers are conservative,” he said, and they’re not based on the traditional time to a weapon, but on the time to access the material for a weapon, which adds another buffer.

Moniz knows his stuff, but he also has a personal touch. When he learned his counterpart in the negotiations with Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, had become a grandfather, he brought baby gifts, all with the MIT logo. Salehi had been at MIT in the mid-seventies, before the Iranian revolution, and while Moniz didn’t know him at the time, he made the most of the connection. Last weekend, Moniz was at the White House Correspondents dinner “with all the models,” he laughed. At Vanity Fair’s after party he enthused to the Washington Post about the fun of networking.

In an otherwise tightly controlled and charisma-challenged Cabinet, Moniz has been given a longer leash, or maybe he’s just taken it. Last fall, he appeared on NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell me, a gig that only a few of the most favored top administration officials have done.

Moniz is well schooled in the schmoozing and the constant follow-up demanded in politics and in any bureaucracy. During the Clinton administration, he was the special negotiator for Russian nuclear materials after having led a comprehensive review of nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship at the Department of Energy, where he was an under secretary. Before that, he was in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President, where he undoubtedly first started to master the moves that would make him successful in government.

Asked about Moniz’ role in the negotiations with Iran, a senior administration official told the Daily Beast that it was important to the President that any framework be able to stand on “rock-solid scientific footing.” That is why his participation was critical to achieving the deal, and also why there’s been no real doubt raised about the scientific underpinnings of what was announced, the official said. “We are never going to win over those playing politics—but to all those seeking to make sound judgments, the science is beyond compelling.” The official noted a long list of distinguished scientists, arms experts and Middle East experts backing the deal.

The science may be strong, but the opposition is emotional and political and not necessarily fact-based. It’s like the debate over climate change, another issue where Moniz is well equipped to summon both expertise and passion for the challenges ahead. “I’ve been quoted before and I’ll say it again,” he told reporters. On climate change, “It’s time to start believing and stop debating.” The scientific case is overwhelming, he said, and while many remain Americans unconvinced, he is heartened that the private sector is responding, with global companies and CEOs taking action to mitigate the increasingly obvious effects of a warming planet.

Moniz testified Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to promote the first ever Quadrennial Energy Review, a comprehensive plan to combat climate change and modernize energy sources. It’s basically bipartisan infrastructure legislation, he said, and it calls for $50 million over a decade. Congress has funded major infrastructure initiatives before, he says, as he sounds the alarm for an economy-wide response to climate change this decade.

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Moniz seems to relish tackling big problems. When a reporter asked about Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, designated by Congress in 1987 as a nuclear waste site, he said candidly, “It’s not workable. If you don’t have consent from every branch of government, things never seem to get over the finish line.” Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, among others, has stood in the way. Moniz has other ideas about where to store all our nuclear waste, “several threads in play,” he said.

An interviewer once asked Moniz, now 70, what one word he liked best to describe him. He said “problem-solver.” Thankfully, he’s taken that talent to Washington, a place with no shortage of seemingly intractable problems.