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Kerry, energy secretary teaming up in Iran talks

Secretary of State John Kerry greeted Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz during a lunch break.US Department of State

VIENNA — Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz spotted John Kerry as the secretary of state emerged from a creperie in Switzerland. Kerry thrust his arms upward, as if someone had just scored a goal. Moniz slapped him a vigorous double high-five.

Astonished news photographers swung their lenses toward the celebration. Could this be a sign of a breakthrough to halt Iran's quest for nuclear weapons?

No. Moniz and Kerry were merely expressing bilateral appreciation for the outstanding crepes served inside.

But the moment did capture the friendly and professional bond that has formed between the two Obama Cabinet officials who are taking the lead on the difficult Iran arms talks, with Kerry spearheading diplomacy and Moniz, a physicist and former MIT professor, assisting on the technical aspects of centrifuges and weapons-grade plutonium.


The two secretaries, whose relationship has roots in Massachusetts and Washington, boarded Kerry's plane Friday and came to Vienna for what is being billed as the final attempt between the United States and Iran to finish a deal. The elusive goal is to block any attempt by Iran to develop a nuclear weapons program, in exchange for the lifting of Western sanctions.

In interviews, both Kerry and Moniz described how they have been working together for months, establishing an effective team to negotiate with the Iranians. In European hotel suites, while watching Patriots playoff football at Gillette Stadium, and at Kerry's Beacon Hill home, the two have laid the groundwork for a possible diplomatic victory.

"Once we developed the one-two punch, we've been using it as much as we can," Kerry said. But it's unclear whether the Kerry-Moniz one-two will make a difference this week, with a Tuesday deadline for a settlement.

"It's going to be a challenge," Kerry said in a phone interview last week.

Kerry and Moniz said they were hopeful despite recent discouraging comments by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that would change the deal.


"The supreme leader has chosen to make more and more public pronouncements and declare red lines that would preclude a deal, frankly," Moniz said. "We'll see if this is trying to strengthen the hand of the negotiating team or whether these are viewed as really hard positions. Because if they are, I don't see how a deal could happen with all the things that he's now saying are required."

Kerry, with Moniz to his right, has spent the past two days meeting with Iran's foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, in the ornate Palais Coburg hotel. Zarif on Sunday night left for a 24-hour trip to Tehran for further consultations, as other foreign ministers began arriving in Vienna in hopes of making a final push for a deal.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz studied arms talk documents in April.US Department of State/File

A senior US official said progress has been made over the past two days but conceded that negotiators would probably go past their self-imposed Tuesday deadline.

Kerry and Moniz first worked together in 2004, when Moniz became an adviser to Kerry's presidential campaign. They forged a deeper bond in 2007, when Moniz was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts, began laying the groundwork for climate change legislation.

Kerry told his top staffers he wanted to spend more time with scientists and less time with politicians. In his Senate office, Kerry had what one aide described as "several wonk-fest meetings" with Moniz, talking through some of the science and energy alternatives that could be used to address climate change.


The effort to pass climate change legislation ultimately fizzled. Once again, the politician and the scientist, now installed in Obama's Cabinet, face long odds.

The septuagenarians have bonded over shared loves of Paris, ties to Boston College (Moniz for undergrad, Kerry for law school), and a good bottle of wine.

"We're both Massachusetts kids and we're both Red Sox fans and Patriots diehards," Kerry said. "He enjoys an evening of conversation, a bottle of wine, and a great meal. And sitting around and talking about a lot more than nuclear programs. . . . He's very good company."

They were together for the New England Patriots playoff contest against the Indianapolis Colts, a game that produced the allegations that Tom Brady was probably aware of a scheme to deflate footballs.

Kerry said he asked Moniz whether temperature fluctuation could have caused football deflation, and "Ernie clearly confirmed that possibility."

Moniz, who was born in Fall River and now lives in Brookline, joined the nuclear talks in February, after the Iranians added their top nuclear scientist to the negotiating lineup. It is rare for two Cabinet members to simultaneously play prominent roles in high-stakes diplomacy.

"You could easily imagine how something like that would not work," Moniz said. "But reality is — and maybe it's partly based upon our long relationship — but I think both of our personalities, we have no problem whatsoever.''


Negotiators announced on April 2 they had agreed to the framework for a deal, with Iran agreeing to limit its nuclear stockpile and enrichment capacity and the United States and European Union agreeing to lift nuclear-related sanctions.

But there are several unresolved issues. Iran wants the sanctions to be released almost as soon as the comprehensive deal is signed, while the United States wants more time to prove that Iran is abiding by the deal.

There is also disagreement over whether inspectors would have access to Iranian military bases.

In a recent interview, Kerry declined to comment on whether the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian would be a part of any deal — or whether he would agree to a deal with Iran if Rezaian is not released.

"I never have a discussion with them where I don't raise the issue of Americans in Iran," he said. "I'll leave it at that."

If a deal is reached, Congress would have 30 days to review it before President Obama could begin lifting sanctions on Iran. But if a deal is not reached by July 9, Congress would have 60 days to review it, and Kerry has expressed concern over extending the deadline, saying in an interview that "mischief makers [would] step in everywhere."

Kerry remains limited by his broken femur, making it harder to escape on midday strolls in search of local fare.

"We've certainly had a lot of food together. And I have to say, I'm very impressed with John's caloric intake while maintaining such a fantastic physical condition," Moniz said. "He's a little bit slowed down at the moment, but I suspect that won't last too long."


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.