Last Friday marked the two-year anniversary of the Obama administration's signature foreign policy achievement: the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that agreement was intended as a solution to Iran's persistent nuclear ambitions, and as a vehicle to reboot the Iranian regime's relationship with the world.
Two years on, it's clear that the deal has indeed been transformative - for the Iranian regime, at least. For America and its allies, however, it has expanded the gravity of the contemporary threat posed by the Islamic Republic.
That's because, although the accord between Iran and the so-called P5+1 powers was intended to be tactical in nature (dealing with just one aspect of the Iranian regime's rogue behavior), the benefits that have been conferred to Iran as a result have been both extensive and strategic in nature. Most directly, as a result of the deal, Iran has gained access to some $100 billion or more in previously escrowed oil revenue - equivalent to roughly a quarter of the country's total annual GDP. That, coupled with a surge in post-sanctions trade and Iran's reintegration into various financial institutions, has set the country on the path to sustained economic recovery.
But the agreement has not succeeded in altering the behavior of Iran's ayatollahs, as the Obama administration had fervently hoped. To the contrary, it has helped to reinvigorate the global ambitions of Iran's radical regime. After laboring for years under international sanctions and with limited means to make its foreign policy vision a reality, the Islamic Republic is now in the throes of a landmark strategic expansion.
Long moribund as a result of international sanctions, the Iranian regime's military modernization efforts have kicked into high gear, entailing plans to acquire tens of billions of dollars in new arms from suppliers such as Russia and China, as well as a significant expansion of its national cyber capabilities. Over time, this drive can be expected to significantly strengthen the Iranian regime's strategic capabilities, as well as the potential threat that it can pose to U.S. and allied forces in the Middle Eastern theater.
Iran's regional footprint in is also deepening. In Syria, Iran - working together with its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah - has played a key role in organizing pro-regime militias and coordinating the deployment of more than 50,000 pro-regime foreign fighters from Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
In Yemen, the Islamic Republic has emerged as a significant source of support for the country's Houthi rebels - assistance that was crucial to the fall 2014 Houthi takeover of portions of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and their consolidation of power (and periodic targeting of Western interests) since. And in Iraq, Iran has commenced a major mobilization in response to the rise of the Islamic State group, organizing and deploying some 40 Shi'ite militias - forces that will give Tehran significant influence over Iraq's future direction after the fight against the Islamic State group winds down.
Iranian support for terror proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah, meanwhile, is said to have ballooned as well, as Tehran has steadily translated its newfound economic wealth into ever greater investments in those rogue actors.
The cumulative impact of these developments is that Iran now represents "the most significant threat to the Central Region and to our national interests and the interests of our partners and allies," in the judgment of Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
The Trump administration's response to these developments, meanwhile, is still very much a work in progress.
Last fall, while still on the campaign trail, candidate Trump made repeal of what he termed the "disastrous" nuclear deal with Iran a top foreign policy objective. Since then, however, Team Trump has discovered that abrogating the agreement is easier said than done - both because of the deal's multilateral nature and because much of the material benefits of the agreement have already been conferred to Iran.
The White House is currently in the midst of a "comprehensive policy review" that, administration officials say, is intended to reassess America's approach to "all of the threats posed by Iran." That should be viewed as good news, because such a review is a necessary precursor to formulating a coherent strategic response to the changing nature of the Iranian threat. But whatever strategy ultimately emerges from this process will need to account for a grim reality: that the nuclear deal inked by Trump's predecessor two years ago has made the threat Iran poses to the United States and its allies much, much worse.
by Ilan Berman
U.S. News & World Report
July 18, 2017