As Iran nuke deadline looms, is a deal likely?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The negotiations over Iran's nuclear program are coming down to the wire, with unresolved issues still hanging over the process.

Gwen Ifill has our update, and a newsmaker interview with the secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz.

GWEN IFILL: The final deadline in the Iran talks arrives in less than two weeks, and, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, a principal hurdle remains: access to Iran's nuclear-related military activities.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. Secretary of State: Access is very, very critical. It's always been critical from day one. It remains critical.

GWEN IFILL: Kerry spoke Tuesday from Boston, where he was recovering from surgery to repair a badly broken leg.

JOHN KERRY: It's critical to us to know that, going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.

That clearly is one of the requirements, in our judgment, for what has to be achieved in order to have a legitimate agreement.

GWEN IFILL: Negotiations have continued since a political framework was agreed upon in early April.

Interpretations of that deal diverged sharply between the Iranians and the so-called P5-plus-one, the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, plus Germany. But Tehran has staked out a firm position against allowing inspections of its military sites or interviews with its nuclear scientists, beginning with the supreme leader.

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, Supreme Leader of Iran (through translator): We have said that we will not allow any inspections of Iranian military centers by any foreigners to take place. They say we should let them interview our nuclear scientists. I will not allow this.

GWEN IFILL: Last Saturday, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, who is subordinate to the supreme leader, said the negotiating process runs the risk of falling apart.

HASSAN ROUHANI, Iranian President (through translator): If the other side can honor the previously reached framework, instead of incessantly posing new demands, I think we can achieve a deal. But if the negotiation is turned into an endless bargaining, this will be very likely to postpone the negotiation progress.

GWEN IFILL: The American point man on the nuclear science involved is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. He's a trained physicist who's been deeply involved in the negotiating process as it hurtles toward the June 30 deadline. I spoke with him yesterday.

Secretary Moniz, thank you for joining us.

So, we know about this June 30 deadline that we're now building up to. Is it a real deadline?

ERNEST MONIZ, U.S. Energy Secretary: Well, we certainly want to meet June 30.

We have lots of reasons to do so, including, of course, our subsequent interactions with the Congress, reporting to them. So, we're pushing hard. We have had six technical meetings since Lausanne. We have had several political level meetings.

Secretary Kerry and I were in Geneva a couple weeks ago, just prior to his unfortunate bike accident. And we expect we will be back soon to try to finish the deal.

GWEN IFILL: But what's the deal? Is it a deal to get a deal or is it a deal to actually button this whole thing up?

ERNEST MONIZ: Oh, no, we are aiming to complete the deal, to see to it that we and our partners, the P5-plus-one, will have a deal where we will have confidence that Iran's program is peaceful. We will have the ability to determine quickly if it is not, and then take proper responses.

GWEN IFILL: Let's walk through some of the outstanding issues, because they are not minor ones.

For instance, assertions that Iran is secretly still trying to work on its nuclear program, any sense of that?

ERNEST MONIZ: Well, first of all, transparency and verification is the basis really of the entire agreement.

So, we will — we have already agreed to some extraordinary measures, including insight into what is called the entire supply chain for uranium, up through enrichment. We will have that kind of access for a long time. So, I think we will have really extraordinary verification measures. And that is what ultimately will be the basis of shutting off any option for a covert attempt at a weapon.

GWEN IFILL: The supreme leader of Iran has said, for instance, that your goal is to allow full and fair and free inspections of things like military sites. And he has said, no, that's not going to happen. He said, no, you're not going to interview our military scientists.

How do you cope with that? How do you get over that hump?

ERNEST MONIZ: Clearly, we need to have the verification that I just described.

With regard to scientists, another part of the nuclear dimensions of this deal must be to resolve the questions of so-called PMD, possible military dimensions. And, there, access to interviews by the IAEA, not by us, but by the IAEA, will be essential, both access to individuals and to sites.

GWEN IFILL: Is it a deal-breaker if they keep saying no?

ERNEST MONIZ: Absolutely.

The way I look at this agreement is, it will be a chance, over a long period of time, for Iran to demonstrate that it — that, certainly going forward, its intentions will be entirely peaceful.

GWEN IFILL: Many members of Congress are cynical about the idea of even suggesting that sanctions be eased, with the assumption that Iran keeps these promises, even if they make them.

What are you saying to members of Congress at this point?

ERNEST MONIZ: That the best offense that we have, if you like, is a really good deal.

And since Lausanne, we have spent a lot of time explaining the technical dimensions that were agreed upon. I think there's been general surprise, in a pleasant sense, from Congress and from others at the specificity of what we managed to negotiate up to Lausanne, still some tough issues.

For example, the exact phasing of how sanctions are relieved in return for Iran meeting its obligations on the nuclear parameters, I will be honest, that's part of what we still have to kind of nail down over the next two weeks.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and also the IAEA, which you mentioned, shortly ago, put out a report not long ago saying that Iran's stockpile of nuclear weapons material is increasing, not decreasing.

That doesn't seem to — doesn't seem like it's aimed at restoring the faith of members of Congress who don't think this is a credible deal.

ERNEST MONIZ: I think we have explained that completely. And, frankly, there's no news there.

GWEN IFILL: Well, explain it to me.

ERNEST MONIZ: The IAEA has confirmed that Iran has met all of its obligations under this temporary agreement.

The fact is that we fully expect that, assuming we reach an agreement, when it comes into effect, they will have the order of 12,000 kilograms of enriched uranium. But in the agreement, they must bring that down to 300 kilograms, and even then at a lower enrichment than they now…

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: How do they do that?

ERNEST MONIZ: There's a couple of ways, basically.

One way is to dilute the uranium with natural or depleted uranium. And the other way, frankly, the simpler way, in my view, is to send it out of the country.

GWEN IFILL: You're a physicist. You're not a politician, necessarily, even though you play politics on TV sometimes.

What exactly has to happen to separate the political from the technical in a very complicated deal like this? Because, as you well know, domestically and internationally, the politics could sink it, as much as the technology.

ERNEST MONIZ: Well, first of all, there are some very high-level issues which the president has to resolve, for example, the decision to seek an agreement that specifically addresses the nuclear weapon issue.

So, some have talked about that as a strategy. But we are committed to that. We have worked seamlessly to weave together the intersecting technical and geopolitical issues. That will be the art that we will have to perfect in the next couple of weeks.

GWEN IFILL: I will say.

And you — Secretary Kerry, as far as you know, will be well enough to travel to Vienna next week?

ERNEST MONIZ: Yes. I visited him last Saturday, when we were both in Boston. And he's looking well. He's back in D.C. now. And he's ready to go.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, thank you very much.

ERNEST MONIZ: Thank you, Gwen.

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