Why is Bill Foster the only lawmaker who can understand Iran nuclear deal?

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Congressman Bill Foster earlier this year | Brian Jackson/For Sun-Times Media

WASHINGTON — For weeks now, Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., has been studying the Iran nuclear deal. Unlike every other lawmaker, Foster, a physicist, is the only one in Congress who can actually understand the highly technical agreement and check it out for himself.

“Unfortunately, there are many technical pathways to a bomb, each of which has to be investigated,” said Foster, who is undecided on whether to support the deal.

Foster earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and spent 22 years as a particle accelerator designer at Fermilab in suburban Batavia before jumping into politics.

I looked up Foster’s 1983 Harvard thesis, titled “An Experimental Limit on Proton Decay,” and could not make it past the equation on the cover page.

The only physicist in Congress is in the midst of a series of classified briefings from technical experts in various government agencies, about 10 so far. Foster doesn’t need a translator.

He speaks their language.

When it comes to analyzing the politics, the diplomacy or the psychology of the deal, Foster is the first to tell you he has no particular expertise.

“But on the technical issues, I think I do have a special standing, perhaps a special responsibility,” Foster said.

We are talking in his Longworth House office about the inquiry he is conducting into the technical guts of the agreement and his singular role as Congress considers its fate.

President Barack Obama is trying to sell the agreement to reluctant Democrats — almost every Republican is against it — by highlighting that it has been vetted by scientists.

At his July 15 news conference, Obama challenged lawmakers “who are objecting to this agreement, number one, to read the agreement before they comment on it; number two, to explain specifically where it is that they think this agreement does not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and why they’re right and people like [Energy Secretary] Ernie Moniz, who is an MIT nuclear physicist and an expert in these issues, is wrong.”

Foster, the sole hard scientist in Congress, is the only one who can actually do that.

Foster, as it happens, has known Moniz for about 20 years, having met him at a particle accelerator conference in the 1990s. Foster, his wife Aesook Byon, who is also a physicist, and White House Science and Technology Adviser John Holdren dined together recently on Capitol Hill.

Foster has potentially enormous influence over whether the Obama White House can win over nervous Democrats. The undecided members are under intense pressure from outside groups to oppose the deal.

“A number of members of Congress are, will be, asking my opinion on technical things,” Foster said.

Because of his credentials as a physicist, if Foster finds the agreement flawed on technical grounds, his conclusions could undermine the central White House argument — and be a propaganda bonanza to opponents.

A key pledge Iran is making is to redesign its Arak heavy water reactor so it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Foster is consulting with some of the nuclear experts at the Argonne National Lab – portions of the complex is in his west suburban 11th congressional district – who are working with the U.S. Department of Energy on the actual redesign of the Iranian facility.

“One of the things I am going to be doing in the coming weeks is to actually look at, now there is a final set of design parameters, going down to a secure briefing facility at Argonne [where] we will be talking about the details of the design modifications, Foster said.

He has questions about Iran’s centrifuge capabilities and — I am not claiming to understand what this is — “the curves of isotopic abundances as the reactor burnout proceeds.”

Foster is assessing one of the most important provisions, that Iran would need at least one year to make enough weapons-grade nuclear fuel – and if Iran cheats it can be detected.

“I am finishing up my due diligence on the one-year break-out time.”

Foster’s to-do list also includes briefings with scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Said Foster, “If there are fundamental, gaping technical flaws, things the Iranians can drive a truck through, then this agreement does no one any good at all. So, the first order of business is to do my best to convince myself that those sort of flaws don’t exist or let people know about them if I see them.”

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