Before the nuclear deal between Iran and the countries of the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany) was concluded a year ago today, the true extent of the compromise struck over Iran's nuclear ambitions wasn't yet publicly known.
It now is. In July of 2015, with great fanfare, the Obama administration formally unveiled the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. What we've discovered since is that the deal is not as bad as it was initially believed. It's actually much worse, for at least three reasons.
It doesn't dismantle Iran's nuclear capability. Contrary to the administration's pledges at the outset of talks in November of 2013, the JCPOA does not irrevocably reduce Iran's nuclear potential. In fact, it does the opposite; under key provisions of the accord, the P5+1 nations have actually committed themselves to strengthening and reinforcing Iran's nuclear infrastructure and processes over the next ten years. As a result, the JCPOA paves the way for a slower – but ultimately a stronger – Iranian nuclear program.
It incentivizes further proliferation. Although President Obama has claimed that the JCPOA closes off all of the pathways by which Iran can acquire nuclear capability, it actually focuses on just one of two such routes: indigenous development (the regime's domestic facilities, stockpiles and nuclear know-how). The JCPOA does not seriously address the other way by which Iran can acquire such a capability – namely, the clandestine procurement of components from abroad.
Why is this a problem? Because Iran maintains active proliferation relationships with a range of suppliers, including the regime of Kim Jong Un in North Korea and private commercial entities in the People's Republic of China. These connections have been essential to Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear advances so far, and they could enable the Iranian regime to make progress on its nuclear effort in the future in spite of heightened scrutiny over its domestic activities.
Most significantly, it fundamentally unravels the international sanctions regime against Iran. Through both direct and indirect means, the JCPOA has put the Islamic Republic on the cusp of an economic windfall of unprecedented magnitude.
This windfall is far more extensive than is commonly understood. It includes a whopping $100 billion in previously escrowed oil revenue – equivalent to one quarter of Iran's annual economy – that the Iranian regime can now freely access. It also involves reintegration of Iran into global institutions such as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, which are essential for Iran's economy to truly stabilize. Underway as well is an administration effort to facilitate Iranian access to the U.S. dollar, possibly through the creation of an offshore clearing facility for facilitating previously prohibited "U-turn" transactions.
The White House has even become an investor in Iran's nuclear program, committing to purchase 32 tons of Iranian "heavy water" – a key by-product of nuclear development – in a multi-million dollar move that is intended, among other things, to signal to other potential economic partners of the Islamic Republic that it is acceptable to invest in the regime's nuclear program. Finally, the administration has leaned heavily – albeit without much success so far – on various U.S. states to begin rolling back their existing local measures that prohibit or limit investment in Iran.
All this has unmistakably placed Iran on the road to sustained recovery. The World Bank now estimates that Iranian GDP – which constricted by nearly 7 percent in 2012 and a further 3 percent in 2013 as a result of Western sanctions – will grow by nearly 6 percent this year alone.
It has also reinvigorated Iran's global ambitions. After laboring for years under international sanctions and with limited means to make its foreign policy vision a reality, the Islamic Republic is now positioned for a landmark global expansion. From massive new military deals with Russia to a landmark expansion of strategic ties with India, the Iranian regime is unmistakably on the march.
America, meanwhile, is still desperately seeking a new Iran strategy. Having rehabilitated the Islamic Republic politically and economically, the United States now lacks a serious approach to curb its global menace. To date, the response of Congress and the executive branch to continued Iranian rogue behavior has been overwhelmingly reactive in nature and tactical in application. Conspicuously absent is any serious plan on the part of the United States to contain, deter and dilute Iran's growing power.
Formulating such an approach, it seems, will need to wait for the next administration. Given the effects the JCPOA has already had, however, whoever ends up taking office this coming January will need to do so without delay.