In an interview before a live audience with at the Washington Post on Thursday morning, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark) said that military action against Iran is “a credible option.” Renegotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran should be an “internal allied discussion,” said Cotton, referring to the “the United States, European partners, Israel and Arab allies,” the latter two of which aren’t even part of the agreement. “Then let Iran, China and Russia be isolated in a rogues’ gallery,” he added.
The Iranian nuclear agreement — which places limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief — faces a critical deadline next week. The White House needs to recertify whether Iran is in compliance on October 15. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already said that this is the case.
The Post’s Associate Editor David Ignatius said Cotton was engaged in “magical thinking” in imagining that Iran would want to renegotiate the terms of the 2015 deal. “What’s in it for Iran?” Ignatius asked. The answer: Nothing, other than to be marginalized with what Cotton described as “coercive diplomacy.”
Cotton’s analysis of the Iran deal during the interview didn’t seem to be rooted in facts. When Ignatius pushed back and noted that that European partners are committed to the deal and Secretary of Defense James Mattis has also said that the deal is in U.S. interests, Cotton simply replied that it wasn’t Mattis’ decision to make. Cotton also dismissed voices from Israel who believe that Israel is safer while the deal remains in place. Instead, he focused on the military option.
“Another premise to most of your questions, David, and most of your argument about this, is that we don’t have a credible military option, which is simply false,” said Cotton. “President Obama often implied that the only choice we had was capitulation under the JCPOA or a decade of occupation after forceful regime change through the introduction of 150,000 mechanized troops, like we do in Iraq — that’s simply not the case.”
“We have a number of calibrated military strikes — like Ronald Reagan conducted against Libya, like Bill Clinton conducted repeatedly against Iraq like Donald Trump conducted against Syria. Like Ronald Reagan conducted against Iran itself, by blowing up half of its navy and several oil platforms,” he said, never quite addressing why these examples would prompt Iran to want to renegotiate the nuclear deal or abandon its ballistic missile program.
He also did not get into how he thought Iran would respond to these strikes and the impact that might have on regional security.
Echoing much of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the agreement, Cotton said that even if Iran is in compliance (it is), the United States should still renegotiate because the deal would “ultimately put Iran in the position of being a legitimate and lawful nuclear power in a mere 13 years.”
Cotton is set to meet with Trump on Thursday afternoon, just ten days before the president is to decide whether to recertify the nuclear deal. The certifying the deal, as the president of the United States must do to Congress every 90 days, technically has no bearing on the agreement. It’s a strictly U.S.-centric mechanism and under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which Congress passed shortly after the deal was reached. Trump has already twice recertified the deal, most recently in July, and on September 14 extended sanctions waivers — a significant move that puts the U.S. in compliance with the deal.
Nonetheless, Cotton said: “I would say they’re [Iran] is not complying, fully, and verifiably, and transparently… and it clearly is not in our vital national security interests.” Iran’s role in the region is a “campaign of imperial aggression across the Middle East,” said Cotton. “So, it’s time for a new approach.”
Cotton used far less nuanced language earlier this week. Taking questions following a speech he gave at the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, Cotton reminded the audience of where he stood on the deal with Iran: “I said when they are on their knees, you drive them to the ground and choke them out. If they’re on their knees and surrender, then you accept their surrender.”