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Faculty Experts Dissect Iran Nuclear Deal

More than 100 Students Gain Insight into Controversial Pact at Forum

Iran Nuclear Deal Forum

Prof. Paula Rayman, left, moderates a recent panel discussion on the Iran nuclear deal with lecturer Gregory Aftandilian, Assoc. Prof. Sukesh Aghara and Prof. Marco Marzo.

By Ed Brennen

As former director of safeguards for the International Atomic Energy Agency, Prof. Marco Marzo vividly remembers having a gun held to his side by a military member while trying to inspect a nuclear facility.

“That makes it very challenging — sometimes scary,” said Marzo, associate director of the university’s Integrated Nuclear Security and Safeguard Laboratory. “To then say, ‘Oh, this (nuclear) material is not declared,’ it’s not easy to do. In theory it’s very nice, in practice it’s very difficult.”

Marzo shared his gripping perspective with more than 100 students during a recent panel discussion on the controversial Iran nuclear deal at O’Leary Library. Moderated by Prof. Paula Rayman, director of the university’s Middle East Center for Peace, Development and Culture, the forum gave students a chance to gain insight and ask questions about the agreement, which touched off heated debate across the country and around the world when it was announced in July.

Under the agreement, Iran must dramatically reduce its nuclear materials and submit to international inspections in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Marzo was joined on the expert panel by lecturer Gregory Aftandilian, an associate with the Middle East Center and a former analyst with the U.S. Department of State, and Associate Prof. Sukesh Aghara, director of the INSSL and an authority on nuclear security.

“We are very fortunate here at UMass Lowell to have resident experts that can help clarify our thinking for many of us who are not experts on this region,” Rayman told students. “This is happening during your lifetime and will continue to unfold during your lifetime.”

Aftandilian, who was foreign policy fellow to Sen. Edward Kennedy during his 21-year government career, discussed the deal from the White House’s perspective. 

“I think it was so important to President Obama because he believes isolation is counterproductive, which fits with his Cuba strategy,” Aftandilian said. “Perhaps when we open up to those countries chance will come about down the road. … And nothing else is going well for Obama in the Middle East, so I think he said to himself, ‘This Iran deal was doable. This will be my legacy.’ ”

Aghara, meanwhile, examined the technical details and economic impact. He explained how the deal derails Iran’s two potential pathways to nuclear weapons — uranium enrichment and plutonium production — for the next 15 years while still allowing the country to pursue a nuclear energy program.

“There is a brighter future for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, but it has to be implemented in a systematic fashion,” Aghara said. “We have to recognize that they have 25 installed nuclear facilities in Iran. They have the technological know-how. So we have to engage with them, and I think this deal allows us to do that.”

Junior psychology major Tyler Briere, who is minoring in criminal justice with a concentration in homeland defense, asked the panel how the rest of the world could be sure that Iran doesn’t use proxies to carry out attacks.

“I’ve done a lot of research into this kind of thing and it was a question that needed to be asked,” said Briere, who thought the panelists addressed his concerns by explaining how Iran’s nuclear material will be monitored. “It’s nice to see three very unique perspectives on what will happen. I try to keep an open mind about the deal itself and what it means to the world, but I think I came away with a little more positive opinion of it.”

Other students who hadn’t been following the issue as closely, like sophomore nursing major Michelle Lowder, came away with a much clearer understanding of the global implications of the deal.

“It’s not something I was really paying attention to, so it’s good to get that opportunity to hear more about what’s going on,” said Lowder, who attended the forum with her Intro to World Religions class. 

While Marzo knows firsthand how challenging it can be for inspectors to go into another country looking for undeclared nuclear activity, he sees the Iran nuclear deal as an opportunity to build trust.

“One of the great achievements of this deal is to establish conditions for this confidence-building process,” Marzo said. “I hope in 20 years it will be possible to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East.”