Two weeks before a fateful vote on the Iranian nuclear agreement, Senator Tom Cotton is giving 100% of himself to prevent the deal from passing • The youngest senator in office, in Israel this week, believes that Tehran still aims to build a nuclear bomb.
“The next American president can certainly walk away from the Iran nuclear agreement, if Iran doesn’t walk away from it or breach it first,” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton told Israel Hayom during a visit to Israel this week. “There is no doubt that the next president will have the constitutional and legal means to walk away from this deal, and I would counsel the next president not to continue with this deal as if it were written in stone, or as if it advances our interests as a country or in the region.”
Cotton, only 38 years old, is currently the youngest senator in the U.S. Congress. Until September 17, when Congress will cast a fateful vote on the Iran nuclear agreement, Cotton is devoting 100% of his time to the issue. It was Cotton who was behind the famous senators’ letter to the Islamic Republic of Iran. This letter, signed by 47 Republican senators, warned Tehran that the next American president would not be bound by the nuclear agreement the Iranian struck with U.S. President Barack Obama in July.
The sentiment penned by Cotton in March, now sounds more relevant than ever. On Wednesday, Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski announced she would back the Iran agreement, granting Obama the crucial 34th vote — a guarantee that he can use his veto power to overturn a Congress vote against the deal. A day earlier, two of Mikulski’s fellow Democrats, Senators Bob Casey and Chris Coons announced that they too would vote in favor of the agreement.
Incidentally, despite his declared support, Coons had plenty of criticism for the agreement. “I am troubled that the parties to this agreement — particularly Iran — have differing interpretations of key terms, and I remain deeply concerned about our ability to hold Iran to the terms of this agreement as we understand them,” Coons said Tuesday.
“This agreement — at best — freezes Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. It does not dismantle or destroy it as I hoped it would,” he said.
Q: Senator Cotton, you are visiting Israel during a dramatic time for us. What tidings do you bring from Washington?
“Sadly, because the president pursued a very narrow and divisive strategy, now a broad bipartisan majority in both the Senate and the House oppose the deal, as does a broad majority of the American people. The question becomes whether he can hang on to a slim narrow partisan minority in either chamber to sustain his expected veto of our bill that would block the deal.
“I am going to keep working against what I view as a very dangerous deal for the United States, for Israel and for world peace.”
Q: Every intelligent person reading the deal, at least the part of the deal that is accessible, will see that it is a bad deal. How do you explain the fact that Congress has been unable to recruit a two-thirds majority to overcome the expected veto?
“I agree that any objective person should see that this is a very bad deal. The president has insisted throughout the last six or seven weeks that it is this deal or war. I strongly disagree with that proposition, as do many of the generals and admirals who have testified before Congress, as do Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez, two senior Democratic senators who oppose the deal. But in their public statements, many of the minority Democratic senators who support the deal say they believe that there are no viable alternatives. I strongly disagree. One simple alternative would be not to give Iran billions of dollars at a time they are still sponsoring terrorism all around the world.”
Q: I live in Israel, and Iran poses a direct threat to me. But it also poses a threat to Americans in Arkansas, Mississippi, Oregon and Washington. How is Iran viewed in the States?
“Iran is a mortal, unrepentant enemy that has been killing Americans for 36 years. It killed hundreds of American troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan. One of the very first actions of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was to invade sovereign U.S. territory, our embassy in Tehran, and hold Americans hostage for more than a year. That is why a strong majority of the American people are opposed to this deal. They know nothing good will come from the ayatollahs getting their hands on nuclear weapons capability.”
Q: There is currently a disparity between what the administration is doing in Washington and what the American public wants. Aren’t the Democrats afraid of a reaction within public opinion?
“Regrettably, the president has done this time after time on many other matters, whether it is immigration or Obamacare or climate change regulations or internet regulations. He has disregarded the clear majority of the American people and pushed forward with unilateral action. The bad news is that because of our separation of powers we don’t have an effective way to stop him in the meantime. The good news is that because so many of these actions are taken just on the president’s own accord, the next president, and this and any future Congress, can undo those decision. In fact, the next president will, depending on the circumstances on the ground, as it relates to this Iran nuclear deal.”
Trying to douse a fire with gasoline
Q: Do you agree that throughout the negotiations, the Iranians believed that the U.S. would not exercise the military option?
“From their behavior and their rhetoric, especially since July 14, you have to conclude that they didn’t believe that there was a credible threat of military force. If anything it has become worse since this deal was signed. Their open contempt and their continued efforts to destabilize the region would suggest that the leaders in Tehran never believed that the threat of military force was credible.”
Q: If the deal is approved, will attacking Iran become a mission impossible?
“For the U.S.?”
Q: For any country.
“The U.S. obviously has unique capabilities and will be the unique enforcer of this deal among the West. That is far from making military action impossible. The enforcement of this deal actually depends on military action. If the ayatollahs believe that they can break their obligations without facing serious consequences — and I would call the threat of snapback sanctions an unserious consequence — they will break their obligations with impunity. So far from removing the threat of military force from the table, if it goes forward, this deal will actually increase the importance of the threat of military action. Because in the end, that may be the only thing that stops the ayatollahs from racing forward toward nuclear weapons.”
Q: If I understand correctly, thanks to the nuclear agreement, in a few months’ time Iran could become an unofficial ally of the United States in the war against the Islamic State group.
“Iran will never be an ally of the United States as long as it is governed by crazed ayatollahs who want to foment Islamic revolutions throughout the region and around the world. The Iranian people, no doubt, could be a natural ally of the United States, but not the ayatollahs. In fact, expecting Iran to help with a problem like Islamic State is like trying to douse a fire with gasoline.”
Q: So you don’t think Iran has undergone any change since the agreement was completed?
“No. Absolutely not. If anything they’ve gotten worse. Just two weeks ago they turned heavy guns from one of their ships on an American helicopter. Just last week, they were complicit in firing missiles into northern Israel. Just look at the statements made by their own leaders — they continue to chant ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ and continue to say that this deal with do nothing to stop their drive for regional dominance.”
Q: Do you believe they are still trying to obtain nuclear weapons?
“Iran has no need for a civilian nuclear power program. In fact, despite their lack of need, they have been given the option to help develop it, and they’ve always opposed and rejected that support. The only conclusion to draw from both their actions and their public statements is that they want to develop a nuclear bomb.”
Q: And the White House doesn’t see that?
“It is mystifying to me. I don’t think the president, or many supporters of this deal, take seriously the supreme leader’s, or the president of Iran’s or the head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ own words. I think when people tell us that they are going to try to kill us, we should take them at their word.”
Q: Everyone talks about Obama seeking a legacy. Some even say that is why he was so eager to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. But isn’t the president afraid that precisely because of this deal, his legacy will be an Iranian atomic bomb?
“I don’t think so. If that comes to pass, I don’t think that he or anyone who supported this deal will regret their support. They’ll simply blame it on whoever happens to be president at the moment, Democrat or Republican. That is exactly what happened with President [Bill] Clinton and all those who supported the 1994 framework with North Korea. They didn’t recant their support for a deeply flawed deal in 1994, they simply blamed the Bush administration.”
Q: Let’s say the president vetoes Congress’ opposition to the deal and a two-thirds majority cannot be achieved to overturn the veto. What then?
“The deal will move forward, but American sanctions will remain on the books. What will happen, from a technical, legal standpoint, is that the president will give a waiver on those sanctions to the government of Iran. That is why it will be so easy for the next president to reverse course, because he or she simply will rescind those waivers and the sanctions that are still on the books in America will immediately come back into place.”
Q: What about imposing new sanctions on Iran for its involvement in terrorism? Is that something that is being considered?
“I would support that kind of effort. In fact, at the very least, the Iran sanctions act expires next year and Congress will need to reauthorize it in the coming months.”
Q: Everyone knows that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the agreement. Even back in 1995, when he was in the opposition, he spoke about the Iranian threat as the biggest threat to Israel since its establishment. Some say that his zeal to prevent the deal hurts Israel’s image and Israel’s relations with the U.S. So you share that view?
“No. The alliance between the United States and Israel is, and will always remain strong because it is not based on any particular president or prime minister, it is based on the American people and the Israeli people and that is an unshakable foundation.”
Q: Should Israel be concerned about new alliances between the U.S. and other players in the region?
“No. The American people will continue to stand with the people of Israel and that is the foundation of our relationship.”
Q: In 2009, the Iranians took to the streets to protest the re-election of then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The White House didn’t lift a finger to help the Iranian people then. Do you think that was a mistake?
“I believe it was a bad mistake not to stand with the people of Iran when they rose up and protested against a stolen election and demanded not just democratic government but also respect for their individual freedoms. It contrasts starkly with the way we treated, say, Hosni Mubarak, our longtime ally in Egypt and a critical ally of Israel as well. That is part of what feeds mistrust of the U.S. throughout the broader Middle East — the fickleness with which we’ve acted over the last six years.”
Q: Do you think that in 2009, the U.S. administration already believed that intervening in support of the Iranian protesters would later interfere with the prospects of a nuclear agreement?
“I suspect so, because the president had said even in his first campaign that he wanted to make some kind of agreement with Iran. That goes back before 2009, in 2007.”
Cotton’s fighting spirit isn’t only evident in his words. In 2005, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army, where he completed its Officer Candidate School. In May 2006, Cotton deployed to Baghdad as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. In October 2008, Cotton deployed to eastern Afghanistan where he served as a logistics officer.
Q: We see that Americans are very proud of their flag, their democracy and their military. But then we see Obama and his anti-war approach. Is America entering a new era? Is the president’s conduct a deviation from the American norm or is America undergoing a fundamental change, shifting away from the values it once held dear?
“I believe that Americans remain firmly committed to maintaining America’s position as the world’s superpower and the ultimate defender and guarantor of order and stability throughout the world because that is in America’s best interest. Our security interest and our economic interest. I believe that the next president, whoever he or she may be of either party, will be committed to that bipartisan foreign policy that has defined America’s relationship with the world since World War II.”
Q: Do you support any of the candidates in the 2016 election?
“I have many friends in the race and some allies with whom I work on various issues. I respect and admire all their service and their willingness to run, but I have not endorsed anyone nor do I intend at this time to endorse anyone. We have another six months before we vote in Arkansas, and another five months before we vote anywhere so that’s a long time to watch and observe.”
Q: Are you surprised by Donald Trump’s popularity in the polls?
“I’m not. No. We’re still a long way out so we don’t know where things will stand in the end. I will actually extend beyond Mr. Trump and say that if you look at the three main candidates who have never held elected office, you have Mr. Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, and add up their recent standing in the polls you get a near majority of voters in the Republican primary, and I think that is telling. A lot of Republicans are sending a signal to the party that they want a change that is more than just business as usual in Washington, D.C. Any one of the candidates can seize that mantle but they need to explain to Republican voters how they plan to do so.”
Q: You are currently the youngest senator in office. You will probably be pleased if a Republican wins the 2016 election. But if a Democrat wins, you may feel the need to run yourself in 2020. If you win, you will be a very young president. What do you prefer?
“I am still focused right now 100% on this Iran deal and then, more broadly, serving the people who elected me to the Senate last year. We have an entire presidential election ahead of us, and I am confident that a Republican is going to win that election.”