Colunist Richard Fein: Iran nuclear agreement needs to be fixed

  • In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 8, in Tehran, Iran. OFFICE OF THE IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER VIA AP

Published: 2/21/2021 3:00:18 PM

This column is about the Iran nuclear agreement, formally known by the acronym JCPOA. The U.S. signed the agreement under the Obama administration and withdrew under President Trump. According to the Washington Post, “President Biden is eyeing an urgent restoration of the international nuclear deal ... suggesting a faster timeline than the administration has previously outlined.”

As explained by the Council on Foreign Relations, the JCPOA is an accord reached between Iran and several world powers, including the United States, in July 2015. Under its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief.

The P5+1 (permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) wanted to unwind Iran’s nuclear program to the point that if Tehran decided to pursue a nuclear weapon, it would take at least one year, giving world powers time to respond. U.S. intelligence officials estimated that, in the absence of an agreement, Iran could produce enough nuclear material for a weapon in a few months.

Under the agreement, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its gas centrifuges for 13 years. For the next 15 years, Iran will only enrich uranium up to 3.67%. In my opinion this was a notable achievement.

However, the JCPOA has many weaknesses and the Biden administration needs to be certain that they are eliminated before rejoining the agreement. They include:

■Sunset clauses: Many of the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program have expiration dates, frequently called sunset clauses. For example, after 10 years (from January 2016), centrifuge restrictions will be lifted, and after 15 years, so too will limits on the amount of low-enriched uranium Iran can possess.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, is also set to lose access to Iran’s undeclared nuclear sites in 2030.

Therefore, at its best, the JCPOA delays Iran’s unfettered ability to build nuclear weapons.

■Missiles: The JCPOA did not include a prohibition on developing missiles. According to National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan, Iran is now more of a threat than when the agreement was signed. Iran’s missiles arsenal has advanced dramatically. According to The Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Iran has recently conducted a number of missile tests that will enhance its future capability to use missiles to deliver a nuclear weapon.”

■Intelligence and inspection: U.S. intelligence has a troubling record track record when it comes to nuclear weapons programs. U.S. intelligence didn’t predict when India, Pakistan or North Korea would explode their first nuclear device. The CIA didn’t know that Iraq had an Weapons of Mass Destruction program in the early 1990s (it did), and thought Iraq did have such a program in 2003 (it didn’t).

In 2007, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that Iran halted its work on nuclear weapons in 2003. In reality, Iran continued to acquire nuclear technology and expertise. In addition, Iran agreed to eventually implement a protocol that would allow IAEA inspectors unfettered access to its nuclear facilities and potentially to undeclared sites. However, it has yet to fulfill this pledge.

Fixing the agreement is very important. As its missiles develop further, Iran could attack the U.S. (the Great Satan). If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it would have the capability to destroy Israel (the Little Satan) with its current missiles.

Iran has publicly and repeatedly proclaimed its intention to wipe out the “Zionist entity.” It is worth noting that this is not contingent on a peaceful resolution of the Israel/Palestine issue. Given the pervasive and decades long Friday chants of “Death to America, Death to Israel,” we should not take that threat lightly.

With a nuclear weapon, Iran would dominate the Persian Gulf region. Saudia Arabia and the Gulf states may develop or buy a nuclear weapon of their own. Israel will probably not sit idly by while a nation that wants to destroy it acquires the means to do so. A nuclear armed Iran may be the precursor for a war were nuclear weapons are deployed. What would the P5+1 do to prevent this? The JCPOA does not commit the world powers to any specific action if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon.

What now? Iran insists that the U.S. remove its economic sanctions before Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA . So far, the Biden administration has rejected that sequence. In my opinion, that is a good start and the administration must stick to it.

An add-on agreement to ban missile development and extend the dates of the sunset clauses is also important. Otherwise Iran will have nuclear weapons and the missile capability to deliver them. It would be only a matter of time.

Richard Fein holds a Master of Arts degree in Political Science and an MBA in Economics. He can be reached at

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