After a short four months as the junior senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton has distinguished himself from his fellow Republicans as the staunchest opponent of the Obama administration’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran. He’s called the entire negotiating process, which began immediately after Hassan Rouhani entered the presidency on an overwhelming mandate from the Iranian public, a waste of time at best and a dangerous concession for the security of both the United States and Israel at worst. Over just a short period of time, Tom Cotton has pulled out all of the stops, using practically every lever that a U.S. Senator has at his or her disposal to raise questions in the minds of his colleagues and make an already exceedingly complicated negotiation more difficult.
The evidence is overwhelming. Cotton, a former member of the U.S. military himself, has been the most vocal proponent of using military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities—this, despite some very knowledgably people in Washington who warn that a U.S. attack on Iran would unleash a Pandora’s Box of asymmetric, Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks and the likely event of the IAEA being denied any and all access to Tehran’s program (think Saddam in December 1998, when the former Iraqi dictator kicked out UN nuclear inspectors). Indeed, Cotton has openly compared a potential U.S. bombing operation in Iran to the aerial operation against Saddam’s WMD facilities during the Clinton administration, which significantly degraded Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear sites over a span of four days. All Washington would need to do, Cotton implied, is replicate President Bill Clinton’s decision to unleash air strikes. And, if President Obama doesn’t have the spine to do it, we could always sell or give away those 30,000-pound “bunker buster bombs” to the Israelis, who would be able to do it themselves.
Cotton has failed to convince the White House, the Defense Department or the majority of the U.S. Congress that the use of the military is the best option available. So he’s pursuing a different tact: try to destroy a bipartisan bill that came out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with poison-pill amendments that he knows would collapse a historic and fruitful negotiation. Although the amendment process will not open up until Tuesday, April 28, Cotton has made it crystal clear that he intends to use his privilege as a Senator to introduce a series of amendments that would roll back the bipartisan nature of the Corker-Cardin Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.
The first would change Senate rules on the Corker-Cardin legislation to require fifty-one votes for passage rather than the usual sixty—a critically important distinction that would eliminate the power of the minority to filibuster, thereby diminishing the need to get the support of at least some Democrats to pass the measure. The second amendment, the most reasonable of all three he plans to introduce, would require the president to report to Congress on all violations or breaches of a nuclear agreement, rather than just the “major” breaches, as called for in the bill.
It’s the third amendment, however, that would turn the terrific work of the Foreign Relations Committee into a partisan vehicle to scuttle the P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations before the final deadline is in sight. According to the Cotton amendment, the president would not be allowed to provide any sanctions relief to the Iranians, even if Tehran signed and implemented a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Instead, Iran would have to meet a series of conditions that have never been a part of the nuclear talks since they were conceived over two years ago. In short, no U.S. sanctions would be lifted unless Tehran permanently shut down the Fordow enrichment facility; shutters its development of long-range missiles; releases all Americans held in Iranian detention; recognizes Israel’s right to exist; and stops supporting acts of terrorism around the world.
In an ideal world, the Iranians would agree to all of these demands. Cotton is right about one thing: the Islamic Republic of Iran sponsors terrorism, creates havoc in the region, has no hesitancy to jail and prosecute journalists for doing their jobs (including Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post) and is more than happy to call for the destruction of Israel. In an ideal world, Iran would stop doing all of these things and become a constructive partner in resolving Middle Eastern conflicts, rather than inflaming them. But there is no such thing as the ideal in the Middle East. The issue is not Israel-bashing, human rights or terrorism, but stopping Iran’s nuclear program from being left unchecked without any international inspections or verification. Cotton’s amendments, if passed, would make that impossible.
Tom Cotton isn’t fooling anyone: either he doesn’t support diplomacy, or he doesn’t know what the concept of diplomacy means.
Daniel DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat Inc., and a contributor to the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore