U.S. Senator from Arkansas (R); Member, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) lays out his views on a strategic basis for non-certification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and offers a way forward on U.S.-Iran policy.
SEIB: Welcome. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas on a crucial and timely topic, the future of the nuclear deal with Iran. I’m Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal, and I’ll be presiding over the discussion.
Senator Cotton, as you know, is a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School, and as a member of the United States Army served two combat tours—one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. And now, in the Senate, he serves on both the Armed Services and the Intelligence Committees.
Senator Cotton will speak for a few minutes, giving his views on what he thinks the course ahead should be for the Iran nuclear deal. Then he and I will have a brief conversation, after which we’ll open the floor to member questions.
So, with no further ado, Senator Cotton.
COTTON: Thank you all very much, and thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this important conversation about the future of the Iran deal.
That future faces a moment of decision on October 15. I’ve long advocated for declining to certify the deal to Congress again for many reasons, which I’ll explain tonight. But President Trump has put it best himself: “The Iran deal poses a direct national-security threat.” The sensible course, then, is to decline to certify the deal, begin the work of strengthening it and counteracting Iranian aggression, with the threat of sanctions and military action if necessary.
To understand why, let’s understand the Iranian threat. It’s not the deal’s technical flaws, though there are a lot of those. The threat is not the nature of Iran’s weapons; it’s the nature of Iran’s regime.
The ayatollahs are a radical, revolutionary Islamist movement backed with the powers of a nation-state, and it has always been so. Shortly after taking power, Ayatollah Khomeini created the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to fulfill “the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is,” to extend “the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world,” in the words of Iran’s constitution. Suffice it to say, their vision of God’s law is not exactly merciful.
The IRGC’s shock troops take their mission very seriously. Today, Iran supports and trains Shiite militias and terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bahrain, and Gaza. They build missile factories on Israel’s borders. They recruit child soldiers to fight in Syria. They employ secret police to harass and beat students.
And Iran is the most anti-American regime in the world. The ayatollahs have called us “the Great Satan” for 38 years, ever since they invaded our sovereign embassy territory in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.
And that’s not just rhetoric; the ayatollahs’ hands are dripping with the blood of American patriots. Hezbollah, the cat’s paw of the IRGC, has murdered hundreds of Americans in the bombings of our embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut and of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia. More recently, Iran was responsible for the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of American troops in Iraq, where they supplied Shiite militias with vast arsenals, including devastating roadside bombs. This is the threat we face: a theocratic tyranny with a deep-seated ideological commitment to wreaking havoc, mayhem, and death against the United States.
There are no mythical moderates in this regime. Even Wendy Sherman, who chiefly negotiated the deal, has since said: “There are hardliners in Iran, and then there are hard-hardliners in Iran.” She even characterized the current president, supposed centrist Hassan Rouhani, as “not a moderate, he is a hardliner.” It has always been so. If the ayatollahs were to moderate, they would undercut their own self-serving claim to rule.
It’s no wonder, then, that this outlaw regime has relentlessly pursued nuclear weapons for a generation. No other weapon is so well-suited for its revolutionary agenda. Nor is it a surprise that the ayatollahs have gone to the greatest lengths to hide their nuclear-weapons program.
Despite belonging to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Khomeini decided as early as 1984 to pursue nuclear weapons. Iran obtained critical support from the A.Q. Khan network, China, and probably Russia throughout the 1980s and 1990s. And, of course, Iran concealed the vast underground enrichment facility near Natanz until dissidents revealed it in 2002. Iran also concealed another underground enrichment facility in Fordow until Western intelligence services exposed it in 2009. As an aside, I must observe that peaceful, civilian nuclear-power facilities don’t tend to be buried underground with several feet of reinforced concrete, or under mountains.
In any event, while Iran periodically engaged in negotiations with Europe and the United States, these talks were nothing but a sham. Don’t take my word for it. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator at the time later admitted Iran used the talks simply to buy time. His name was Hassan Rouhani.
This is the regime’s history: they hid their nuclear-weapons program, they denied it, and they lied about it. Their religious fanaticism is rivaled only by their duplicity.
But President Obama was willing to overlook Iran’s long history of treachery to pursue a nuclear deal at any cost. His instinct was always to appease the ayatollahs. When they stole an election in 2009, sparking the Green Movement, he ignored the pleas of innocent protestors as the regime crushed them—a stark contrast, one must add, to his attitude toward our Arab partners during the Arab Spring less than two years later. And he was never all that enthusiastic about sanctions, either, despite later taking credit for them. In 2009, his State Department lobbied against sanctions on Iran’s energy and banking industries, and in 2011 his Treasury Department opposed sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran. Congress, thankfully, passed them anyway.
Along with various U.N. sanctions, these were the toughest sanctions Iran had ever faced, and they helped to drive the regime to its knees. One thing I learned in the Army is that when your opponent is on his knees, you drive him to the ground and choke him out. But President Obama extended a hand and helped the ayatollahs up.
So it was that a duplicitous, outlaw regime, and a naïve, desperate president combined to produce “the dumbest and most dangerous” deal in American history, as President Trump has rightly called it. Not that President Obama thought so. He claimed that “every pathway to nuclear weapons is cut off.” Hardly. The deal didn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paved that path. It didn’t eliminate Iran’s nuclear program—the way, for instance, agreements with Libya and South Africa did. In fact, the deal is weaker even than the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, which at least purported to foreclose plutonium reprocessing. We see how that worked out.
By contrast, the deal in effect endorsed Iran’s right to enrich uranium, meaning President Obama granted the ayatollahs a privilege that President Ford denied to the shah and that President Bush denied to the United Arab Emirates as part of our 123 Agreement with the Emiratis. As Henry Kissinger and George Schultz have written, “negotiations that began…as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal” ended “with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years.”
Moreover, perhaps the strongest indictment of the deal is that it expires. Actually, though, it’s not the whole deal that expires; our sanctions don’t automatically snap back in 10 years. It’s only the restrictions on Iran that begin to disappear.
And when they do, Iran will be closer than ever to a nuclear weapon. Even today—event today—Iran can continue research into advanced centrifuges. In 2025, Iran can begin manufacturing hundreds of advanced centrifuges and start importing dual-use technology without international oversight, preparing the ground for Iran to create an industrial-scale centrifuge-production infrastructure. And in 2030, all limits on centrifuge operation and facilities, and bans on plutonium reprocessing and separation will expire, as will the limits on Iran’s uranium—enriched-uranium stockpile. So, by 2030 at the latest, Iran will be able, while fully complying with this deal, to reach nuclear breakout in a matter of weeks.
Again, don’t just take my word for it. In 2015, President Obama said in years 13, 14, and 15 of the deal the Iranians could “have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” Further, Iran is simply doing under the deal what would’ve occurred on a similar research timeline anyway: replacing old, outdated IR-1 centrifuges with IR-6s and IR-8s, which President Rouhani has boasted are “the most modern and advanced” centrifuges “Iran has obtained.”
Put simply, this deal only makes sense if you assume, contrary to all experience, that Iran will evolve into a lawful, peaceful, law-abiding regime in 10 years. To put it differently, it was the Obama administration, not its critics, that based our Iran policy on a fanciful vision of regime change.
And that’s also assuming Iran doesn’t cheat, a doubtful assumption since the inspection regime under the deal is very weak. Before the deal, we were promised anywhere, anytime, 24-hour, seven—24/7 access. But we didn’t get that. For instance, the deal gives Iran at least 24 days, and perhaps much longer, to block inspections at a suspected nuclear site—which is significant, because important nuclear work can be done on a small scale that would be difficult to detect after a 24-day cleanup.
Also, Iran refuses to grant inspectors access to nuclear-research and military facilities. Just last week, Director Yukiya Amano said that the IAEA’s tools were limited for verifying the prohibition on weaponization. Of course, some former Obama administration officials and some members of the P5+1 would just as soon the IAEA not make these requests, lest it provoke a showdown.
Finally, how confident are we that Iran isn’t cheating unbeknownst to us? If Iran doesn’t have a covert nuclear program today, it would be the first time in a generation. Are we really so sure, when a lot of the work could be hidden in a facility the size of a football field in a country two-and-half-times the size of Texas, and where military facilities are off limits? And at what consequence of being wrong?
And while the deal paves Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb in just a few years, more immediately it has empowered and enabled Iran’s revolutionary aggression. Both the chairman of the Joint—of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, and the commander of Central Command, General Joe Votel, have testified that Iran has grown more aggressive since the deal was struck. And that’s not surprising, since it received over $100 billion to fund the IRGC.
Consider the ayatollahs’ campaign of imperial aggression. Have they stopped giving rockets to Hezbollah? No; now they’re building missile factories in Syria and Lebanon. Their support of Bashar al-Assad has only intensified. Iranian-backed militias continue to destabilize the government in Baghdad. Iran is still supplying anti-ship missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, which threatens the Bab al-Mandab Strait, just as Iran’s menacing activities in the Persian Gulf—such as harassing U.S. Navy vessels and holding our sailors hostage last year—holds that critical sea lane at risk. Iran doesn’t use normal statecraft to advance its interests. In country after country, Iran employs loyal sub-state proxies to advance its revolutionary agenda and to construct a vast crescent under its influence.
And then there’s the regime’s most flagrant provocation: its continued development of ballistic missiles. Since the deal was announced, Iran has tested at least 14 ballistic missiles in a direct affront to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231. Unfortunately, that resolution, like the deal itself, is laughably weak, since Iran is merely “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles” instead of being outright forbidden. In any case, even these restrictions expire in 2023. And in 2020—barely two years away, just two years away—the conventional-weapons embargo on Iran expires, and the ayatollahs will be able to buy and sell all manner of weapons—missiles, battle tanks, heavy artillery, attack helicopters.
Against this aggression, what tools did the deal give us? Only the threat of snap-back sanctions, after Iran has already received its end of the bargain. But when that’s the only enforcement measure, it’s like the death penalty being the only sentence for all crimes, from jaywalking to murder. The West is too afraid to pull the trigger, and as a result the Iranian regime gets away with everything short of murder, and many times murder itself.
So, after two years of living under this terrible deal, the question before us is: What now? To that I quote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “fix it or nix it.”
President Trump is free to insist upon revision of the deal, under threat of withdrawal and reimposed sanctions, because President Obama refused to submit the deal to the Senate as a treaty. Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time that ratifying a treaty was “impossible”—which was odd, since he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee when the Senate ratified New START in 2013—in 2010, just three years earlier. What they really meant was the Iran deal was so weak, and hence unpopular, that it couldn’t be ratified.
I wrote a letter to the ayatollahs at the time, joined by 46 of my colleagues, cautioning them that the next president or Congress could alter or unwind any deal that wasn’t a treaty. They foolishly didn’t heed our warning. They should have.
As a result of President Obama’s refusal to submit the deal as a treaty—and the ayatollahs’ failure to insist upon it, as Vladimir Putin did for New START—Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. I was the lone vote against that bill because a nuclear agreement, especially with an outlaw regime like Iran, should be submitted as a treaty and obtain a two-thirds vote in the Senate. But the law includes other, helpful measures of accountability, most notably for our purposes the requirement that the president certify to Congress every 90 days not only Iran’s compliance with the deal, but more importantly whether the deal remains in the “vital national-security interests of the United States.”
In April and July, President Trump made this certification, mostly because the administration was still reviewing our Iran policy. But the time for reviewing Iran policy is over; the time for choosing is here. The president should decline to certify—not primarily on the grounds related to Iran’s technical compliance, but rather based on the long catalogue of the regime’s crimes and perfidy against the United States, as well as the deal’s inherent flaws and weakness. The deal and the status quo are most certainly not in our “vital national-security interests.”
This course of action has the simple virtue of being true. A one-sided, temporary agreement that enables Iran’s campaign of imperial aggression, and that ends with the United States making Iran a legitimate and lawful nuclear power, is manifestly not in our interest. A routine series of half-hearted certifications won’t make it so.
And speaking the truth would also signal to Congress, to our allies, and to Iran that the new president won’t repeat the last president’s mistakes, but instead intends to confront the Iranian threat. Better to have no deal at all than one that compromises our security, emboldens Iran, and encourages nuclear proliferation across the Middle East.
The world needs to know we’re serious, we’re willing to walk away, and we’re willing to reimpose sanctions, and a lot more than that. And they’ll know that when the president declines to certify the deal, and not before.
Let me reiterate, though, that this certification occurs under U.S. law, not the deal itself. The decision not to certify doesn’t withdraw us from the deal immediately. Rather, it gives Congress a 60-day window to do quickly what we’ve always had the power to do: reimpose sanctions.
But instead of that backward-looking step, which the president also has in his power to do right now, let me suggest that we look to the future and a new approach that does what President Obama should have: verifiably halt Iran’s nuclear program and deny Iran the ability to race toward nuclear breakout. That’s the deal that could have been ratified as a treaty two years ago. Congress and the president, working together, should lay out how the deal must change and, if it doesn’t, the consequences Iran will face. These conditions are pretty obvious from the deal’s inherent flaws.
First and foremost, eliminate the sunset clauses. These absurd clauses are unprecedented in nuclear nonproliferation efforts and simply reflect President Obama’s desperation for any deal, no matter how weak. And we should seek stiffer limits on centrifuge research and development. Iran has no need for an industrial-sized program absent an intent to develop nuclear weapons. If its program is peaceful, Iran can simply buy its nuclear fuel abroad, as so many other countries do.
Second, fortify the deal’s Swiss-cheese inspection regime. The IAEA has stated there are gray areas regarding its authority to verify Iran’s compliance. There’s no room for gray area here; Iran’s obligations must be spelled out in black and white.
Third, restrict Iran’s ballistic-missile and cruise-missile programs. There is no reason Iran needs better and better, longer- and longer-range missiles except to deliver a nuclear warhead. Their missile program alone warns us that they continue to seek nuclear weapons.
If the political branches, working on a bipartisan basis on the parts of the deal we all know are flawed, we will have the strong and unified front between Democrats and Republicans, and between Congress and the president, that the Iran deal never enjoyed. That unity will help the president forge a unified position with our allies—not only the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, but also Israel and our Arab allies. Then it will be Russia and China who must choose between a stronger deal and being isolated and in league with the ayatollahs.
Meanwhile, the United States will have newfound freedom of action to confront Iran for supporting terrorism, destabilizing the Middle East, and abusing their own people, because we will no longer be viewed as chumps trying desperately to hang onto a one-sided nuclear deal, sacrificing other vital interests in the region. It’s imperative that we pursue this kind of overarching Iran strategy and stop seeing Iran simply through the lens of the nuclear deal.
Now, I know there are some people who oppose this course of action, or think it’s impossible, or view the deal as part of their legacy. But I don’t think their objections hold up under scrutiny.
Lately, we’ve heard some people say that questioning the Iran deal will signal to North Korea that the United States can’t be trusted. Well, didn’t I warn the ayatollahs that this deal might not survive if it wasn’t a treaty? I think I did. But, really, as if North Korea even needs a pretext to break its commitments. That’s why they make commitments in the first place. If anything, certifying the disastrous deal with Iran will show the North Koreans that we lack the will to confront them. And, speaking of that, isn’t it curious that North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests have accelerated so rapidly since we agreed to the Iran deal?
Other critics have said our allies will never go along with this course of action. I wouldn’t be so sure. After all, it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who pulled President Obama toward stronger sanctions on Iran. The new president, Emmanuel Macron, has acknowledged the very weaknesses of the Iran deal I’ve outlined here, while urging President Trump to preserve it or propose an alternative. Well, that’s exactly what we would propose to our European partners. And I know Israel and our Arab allies will stand with us. If anything, they’d prefer immediate snap-back sanctions.
Now, others ask: Why not wait until the agreement expires so we can deal with more immediate threats now, like North Korea? Well, to that, let me say a few points.
First, it’s precisely because we’ve waited so long to address the North Korea problem that today we have so few good options there.
Second, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a far more dangerous than a nuclear North Korea.
Third, if the ayatollahs will arm Houthi rebels to attack Saudi cities today, if they’ll build missile factories for Hezbollah today, if they’ll back the brutal Assad regime today, imagine what they’ll do under the cover of a nuclear deterrent.
And, fourth, now is the time to act, before Western corporations become more deeply entrenched in Iran’s economy and create a pro-Iran domestic lobby. In every way, delay strengthens Iran’s hand, which is usually the case with weaker but aggressive nations.
Still others object that Iran has already pocketed the sanctions relief, so if we leave the deal they’ll keep the money and race to nuclear breakout. This, of course, is one reason why the deal was so bad in the first place. But I don’t propose leaving the deal yet. I propose taking the steps necessary to obtain leverage to get a better deal. Besides, Iran has its own reasons to preserve the deal for now.
Yet, if the ayatollahs do quit the deal, let them bear the consequences. President Trump can immediately reimpose all sanctions under U.S. law and U.N. Security Council resolutions. We can go further and impose a de facto global embargo: oil exports, foreign-currency accounts, insurance across all industries, and access to SWIFT and other foreign financial institutions, among other things. Those embargo-like conditions will likely create economic chaos and destabilize the regime before its estimated 12-month breakout. And, if not, it will at least buy time for more devastating military action.
Which leads to a final objection: there’s no military option against Iran. Those who say this seem to believe we only have two choices: capitulation under the deal or years-long occupation after forcible regime change. Of course, that’s not the case.
We always have the option of calibrated strikes like President Trump ordered against Syria earlier this year. Indeed, we’ve used them to good effect with Iran in the past. There was Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, when we destroyed or damaged half of Iran’s operational navy to retaliate for their mining the Persian Gulf. There was Operation Desert Fox in 1998, a four-day operation against Iraq, which also startled the ayatollahs. And it’s worth remembering Iran didn’t offer to suspend uranium enrichment until 2003, when we invaded Iraq. Throughout their history, the ayatollahs have consistently yielded to credible military threats.
And while the credible threat of military action may be all that’s needed to change the regime’s behavior, let there be no doubt about this point. If we are forced to take action, the United States has the ability to totally destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. And if they choose to rebuild it, we could destroy it again, until they get the picture.
Nor should we hesitate if compelled to take military action. Iran has been attacking us for decades, after all. As I mentioned earlier, Iran killed hundreds and hundreds of our troops—our brave troops—in Iraq with uniquely powerful roadside bombs known as explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs. These bombs could penetrate any Army vehicle, even an Abrams tank. I know this, because I was there.
Toward the end of my tour, two new, young soldiers joined our platoon. As we prepared for their first patrol, I reminded them of their training and told them that we were a battle-tested unit, so they had little to worry about. They asked about roadside bombs. I told them to trust their armor—that we all had been blown up, most of us more than once, and we’d lived to tell about it. Then they asked about EFPs. I didn’t have a reassuring answer for them, so I just said let’s hope it’s not our day to die.
It would be a dereliction of duty to tell the American people the same thing, in essence: that we must eventually learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. We can do better. We can do better than this deal. Iran is not 10 feet tall, after all, and we still have time to set things right. With new leadership and new resolve, effective diplomacy, and a credible military threat, we can defeat Iran’s drive for supremacy in the Middle East.
Thank you all very much. (Applause.)
SEIB: Thank you, Senator. There’s plenty to chew on there. Let me—let me start by trying to clear up one point.
As you know, the other members of the P5+1 have said in various ways, particularly at the UNGA over the last couple of weeks, that Iran is, in fact, complying with the nuclear deal. Do you think Iran is or is not abiding by the nuclear deal as written?
COTTON: Well, so, first, my point is that even if they were complying with it, even if they were—if it was fully verifiable they were complying with it, which it’s not and which they aren’t, it is still not in our vital national-security interests because it does not block Iran’s path to a bomb; it puts them on the path to a bomb, now in barely a decade. So there’s no need to quibble over Iran’s technical compliance with the deal.
However, if you want to quibble, I will point out that they have had more centrifuges than they are allowed under the deal. They have produced more heavy water than they are allowed under the deal, which the Obama administration had bought from them to help them get them back in compliance which sits in Oman to this day not under inspection, not being safeguarded, and which they still control.
There have been other reports that suggest they continue to probe the boundaries of the deal in the way that weaker, revisionist but aggressive nations always do—walking up to the threshold of retaliation, probing to see what they can get away with, and then pulling back. That’s another reason why it’s time not to certify the deal now and to get a better deal, because Iran will continue that pattern for all the years that the deal remains, even though the fundamental reason is this is not a deal that’s in our national-security interests.
SEIB: The one thing that the Iranians have made clear, or at least tried to make clear, is they have no intention of renegotiating the agreement. I think that both President Rouhani and others have said as much in the last couple of weeks. Do you have any reason to think or an idea of how they can be compelled to renegotiate an agreement?
COTTON: Well, I mean, after eight years of fighting Iraq, you know, we blew up half of their navy and sank some of their oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, and the Iran-Iraq War pretty quickly came to a conclusion. That was because, in part, they feared a more aggressive American intervention. So Iran continuously, throughout its history, responds to credible threats of military force, just like they responded to pretty effective sanctions that were in place up till four years ago.
So they may say that now, and I know that some of our European partners may say that now. That’s why I say it’s so important that we not certify this deal again, as happened in April and in July. Until we take that preliminary step, which is still fully in compliance with the deal, I don’t think our European partners are going to sit down and negotiate a hard bargain at the table. I don’t think Iran is going to take the threat seriously.
SEIB: Do you suspect, though, that if the path that you’ve just laid out were pursued—which is to say the president does not certify the deal, Congress proceeds to reimpose sanctions after agreeing that it’s not in the national-security interests—would the Iranians then break out of the deal themselves? And wouldn’t that put them on the path toward the nuclear breakout scenario that President Obama was trying to avoid?
COTTON: So I’m not necessarily saying that Congress should impose sanctions in that 60-day window. Remember, we’ve had that power now for two years, since this deal was struck. We’ve had it for nine months under the Obama—or, I’m sorry, under the Trump administration, which the president presumably would not have vetoed it. I’m saying that we need a new and broader approach that looks at fixing the problems with the deal and confronting Iran’s campaign for imperial aggression in the region. That may involve reimposed sanctions, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t give some time for diplomacy to work. I’m not saying this is an October 16th problem, but I know it’s a problem much earlier than 2025 and 2030.
SEIB: But would the—do you think that the Iranians, if there were new sanctions, would then take the step of being the ones who broke the deal? You’ve suggested that’s a possibility.
COTTON: Perhaps. But I’m also saying that, to have reached that point, I am presuming that we will—we would have undertaken weeks or perhaps months of serious, hard negotiations with our European partners, our Arab allies, Israel, course of diplomacy against Iran. And after those serious of negotiations, when Iran has made it clear that they don’t take seriously our interests, then at that point it may be time to reimpose sanctions.
SEIB: And the—
COTTON: And I should say not just reimpose sanctions, a backward-looking effect under current U.S. law and U.N. Security Council resolutions that President Obama waived and President Trump has now waived again, but other sanctions that law—that the law already permits as well.
SEIB: And the argument has always been that the deal was the only brake against a nuclear rush by the Iranians; and that the demise of the deal, even if they are the ones who bring about its demise, would simply precipitate that rush.
COTTON: That’s a well-put question that many people ask, and I ask them a question in return: What will happen in 2025 and 2030? And nobody has an answer to that. They shrug their shoulders. At best, they say, well, maybe Iran will have become a peaceful, normal country and be governed by people like the parliament of Luxembourg. In reality, a lot of them think it won’t be my problem because I’ll be out of office by then. Well, I intend to be around by then. The Senate is the one institution in our government that is supposed to take the long view of these matters, and that’s certainly what I promised Arkansans to do—not just about next week or next month or next year or next term, but the long view of these matters.
SEIB: You said in your remarks that the problem is not with the deal so much as with the Iranian regime. In saying that, you were essentially arguing for a strategy of regime change. Is that what you’re calling for here? And, if so, how would you propose to embark on a strategy of regime change?
COTTON: Well, I’m certainly doubtful that our interests can be safeguarded in the—in the Middle East as long as Iran’s ayatollahs are governing in the manner they’ve governed for 38 years. I would welcome them opening up their country, democratizing their government, sharing power, and becoming a normal nation like Luxembourg. I’m under no illusion that that’s going to happen, as opposed to so many people who support this deal.
I’m not making the case, though, that we have to invade the country, forcibly overthrow the regime, and occupy it with 150,000 heavy mechanized troops. That’s the case that President Obama always made when he said it’s either this deal or the Iraq War again. As I said, there are many precedents for calibrated strikes that achieve our objectives.
Ultimately, it’s up for the Iranian people to make those decisions. But in the meantime, we should do everything we can to protect our interests and to support the Iranian people, who would like to have a free government, who would prefer not to live under an oppressive theocratic regime—which, by the way, barely has a majority in terms of ethnicities and religious sects inside their own country.
SEIB: Let me just as this, finally, and then we’ll open up to members. You more than probably anybody in this room know how painful conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq has been, how long it’s carried on. Are you confident that a military action against Iran could be controlled, would not turn into such an exercise?
COTTON: So if you’re asking will Iran retaliate, or try to put pressure on the United States or our allies in other ways, perhaps increase the pace of missiles being shipped to the Houthis or activate more Hezbollah cells, no, I can’t say that. I am confident that we have it in our power to control those secondary effects. I’ve been told the same thing by leaders in Israel and the Arab world as well, who are desperate for us to take a stronger line against Iranian aggression in their region.
SEIB: Let me open it up to questions. Raise your hand. There are mics in the audience. Please identify yourself, and hoping for questions not statements, and a reminder this is on the record. So let’s start right there.
COTTON: Wait, this is on the record? (Laughter.)
Q: First, Senator—I’m Jim Slattery, a former member of Congress from Kansas. I first want to thank you for your service in Afghanistan and Iraq. I can’t imagine the kind of pain that you must have felt seeing your troops be killed by these Iranian-provided IEDs and other weapons.
Let me just observe that in your remarks, which I thought were very well-delivered, you seemed to ignore several points. One was the starting point of all of this, and that is when these negotiations started the Iranians were within weeks or a few months of breakout at that time. So that was the reality that the previous administration was confronted with. Now, most experts would argue that as long as Iran is complying with the 300-kilogram limit on low-enriched uranium, which is appears they are, then they can’t build a nuclear weapon with that amount of low-enriched uranium. So I’d like for you to comment on that.
And then the second thing is, it seems that you completely discount the fact that they have dismantled the plutonium facility at Arak and they have also eliminated 90 percent of their centrifuges. So, even under the worst scenario, it seems that right now we have probably at least a year breakout time, compared to when we started this process we may have had two months breakout time.
So I’d like for you to just comment on the positive features of this agreement that have, in fact, bought us time. And who in the world knows what the world’s going to look like in 10 years? The ayatollahs may be gone. Who knows? Who knows what it’s going to be in 15 years? But for goodness sakes, it seems to me we have bought maybe 10 years or 15 years. And at the end of that time, the Iranians are still obligated to comply with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, I mean, I’d like for you to comment on the positive features of the agreement.
COTTON: Well, Jim, thanks very much for your kind words. I appreciate those.
Again, when you get into the technical details of the deal, which I’ll address momentarily, you overlook all the negative consequences that the deal has enabled and empowered Iran to undertake. We view our Iran policy, as Europe does, through the lens of this deal and trying to preserve the deal at all costs. That’s why the Obama administration bent over backwards not to press on access to military facilities, to buy Iran’s excess heavy water, to excuse these violations. That’s why we look the other way as they do things like build these missile factories on the border of Israel.
And, again, to my point, we’re only seven to 13 years away, in some cases, from a nuclear weapon. That is the blink of an eye in the life of a nation. Jim, the points you’re making were made in 1993 and 1994 about the Agreed Framework with North Korea: “Maybe the Kim regime will be gone by then.” I hope the ayatollahs are gone by 2025 as well. Hope is not a strategy, though. And this deal doesn’t block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. At the very best you can say it buys a little bit of time.
Now, your points are well-taken, that many experts said they were two to six months away from breakout by 2023. That’s not a recommendation for this deal if you’re the president in 2012 or 2013, it is a recommendation for the kind of path I’ve laid out now to take with Iran. Much of the concessions they made in this deal, when you get into the technical details, is like giving the sleeves off their vest. They are giving up old centrifuges that they were advancing beyond anyway. They were taking timelines that were going to be necessary for their scientists to achieve anyway. They are buying the kind of time they need to perfect the uranium enrichment cycle, to perfect their ballistic-missile program, to marry those two things together.
That threat is not going away under this deal. Currently, it’s going, at the latest—even if you assume that there’s no covert program, at the latest it’s going to come to life in the second half of the last decade. It is irresponsible, in my opinion, to tell the American people we just hope that something will change or that we can do something about it at that time. That’s why we have so few good options with Iran today—I’m sorry, with North Korea today.
And remember, as I said, a nuclear Iran is a much greater threat than a nuclear North Korea. North Korea is a hermit kingdom on the edge of Eurasia surrounded by four nation-states with much greater power than it. Iran is a relatively integrated society in the Middle East, the crossroads of civilization, surrounded by many more peer competitors, and a(n) aggressive revolutionary ideology that it exports throughout the region and around the world.
SEIB: We’ll go there, and then way in the back after that. Right there. Yeah. And then in the back row next. Go ahead.
Q: Thank you. Sorry, my legs don’t work so well anymore. Senator, I’m Peter Zimmerman. I’m a physicist, an arms-controller, and sometimes a weaponeer.
Let me ask you and challenge you one of your points, and then let me make a very brief comment. You’ve said that Iran could hide everything it needs to build a bomb in a space under roof the size of a football field, which I note is about an acre, and I note that that is compared to any nuclear plant that has ever been built real tiny. And, of course, to experiment—to perfect your nuclear design, you need to conduct high-explosive experiments, and I know you can’t do that under roof in one acre. So I’d like you to comment, if you would, on how you think Iran could conceal its program.
And then I’d like to make a personal observation as a retired naval reservist. I would hope that either in the Army or at Harvard you learned that American practice is when you have a defeated enemy on his knees, you accept surrender and offer mercy. You don’t smash him to the ground.
COTTON: Well, the problem with your premise there, Paul, is that Iran was not defeated.
Q: Peter, thank you.
COTTON: —Peter; I’m sorry—was that Iran was not defeated in 2013. Iran was wounded by our sanctions, but they obviously were not defeated since they got $100 billion—
Q: That’s not my comment. My comment was that you said when an enemy is defeated—you learned this in Iraq—you stomp on him.
Q: No, he said you choke him out.
Q: You choke them.
COTTON: I said when they’re on their knees—I said when they’re on their knees you drive them to the ground and choke them out. If they’re on their knees in surrender, then you accept their surrender. So we can quibble over semantics here, but your fundamental point is wrong. Iran was not defeated. It did not surrender in—
Q: I didn’t suggest—
COTTON: Let me answer. You had a chance to answer your question, let me have a chance to answer it.
Iran was not defeated in 2013. If they were defeated in 2013, how did they seize one of our naval vessels and hold 10 American sailors hostage last year? How are they building missile factories on the border of Israel? How are they providing missiles to Houthi rebels that hold a large percentage of the world’s commerce at risk in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait or that can strike Jeddah and Riyadh? It’s an interesting point you make, but it is fundamentally wrong. Nor did I say you can build the entire nuclear infrastructure in a facility the size of a football field. You can build much of it.
But I would concede the point rhetorically. Let’s say they don’t have a covert program, for the first time in a generation. I will ask you, what are we going to do in 2025 and 2030? Because they can obey the deal. They can obey every single item of the deal. They can even let the IAEA come into all the facilities they’re currently denying access to. And in the second half of the last decade we will have made Iran a lawful, legitimate nuclear power, with catastrophic effects for the United States and our allies in the region.
Q: No, we will have made—(off mic).
SEIB: That’s fine. No, we have to move on. No, let’s go to the—no, no, let’s—I’m going to the back row there.
Q: Thank you very much. Good evening. Katrina Manson from The Financial Times.
Two-part question. The first is, can I ask to press you on your position on the potential reintroduction of sanctions? Are you saying that you would like to use the 60 days—should you be given them—to negotiate for a tougher deal in some way, and that you would not, yourself, push to reimpose sanctions on Iran? And—
COTTON: Yeah, so I have no intention right now to introduce snapback sanctions legislation on October 16th. That 60-day window is a relatively short period in which we can do what we already have the power to do, which is impose sanctions at any time. But the president doesn’t need Congress to do that either. He holds in his hands, still, the power to reimpose all waived sanctions under both U.S. law and U.N. Security Council resolutions. Now, I’m not sure that 60 days is long enough to conduct the kind of coercive diplomacy I’ve mentioned. If it’s obvious by the end of that 60-day period that the course of action I’ve recommended will not work, then perhaps we will have to reimpose sanctions then. But I’m also willing to give the administration and our allies in Europe and the Middle East more time than just 60 days to try to get a better deal.
SEIB: Right here and then next we’ll be up here toward the front.
Q: Hi. Kevin Book from Clearview Energy Partners. Thank you, Senator, for your remarks.
I have a follow-on question. It’s more specific. It’s really, as you say, an internal matter to the U.S. about whether or not one certifies or decertifies, but it’s a question of international law, or treaty at least, with regard to whether or not we waive sanctions. That date comes in January, by the best of my estimate. And so what we’re really talking about is not 60 but 90 days. And then if you add on another 60 days for the dispute resolution process within the JCPOA, we’re really talking about maybe March. So without wishing to press you too much on the point, at what point does Congress step in? At what point is this something where the Congress decides that it must take action. Is March soon enough?
COTTON: Thank you. I think we’re talking about a period, I would say simply, of months not years, to be sure. Again, this is not an October problem. You know, if you accept that Iran is not cheating on the deal right now, especially in a covert manner of which we’re not aware, then most experts say there is a year to breakout. And I’m not sure what Iran will do on October 16th if the president follows my recommendation and doesn’t certify under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. So there is a period of months at which we can engage in the kind of coercive diplomacy I have advocated, and at least test the proposition.
And if we get to the point where that’s clear it’s not, then we may have to reimpose sanctions. We may have impose new, even more coercive, sanctions. We may have to array our forces to prepare for the kind of calibrated strikes I mentioned. I don’t want to put an exact timeline on it, but, again, it’s not an October 16th problem, but it surely can’t be a 2025 or 2030 problem, when Iran’s economy has grown probably 2 or 3X what it is today, when Western businesses are entrenched in that economy, when it’s got even more control of territory and peoples throughout the Middle East, and when it’s perfected almost all of its nuclear weapons program.
SEIB: We’re going to go right here. I’m just going to interject a quick follow-up question of mine own here. You know, one of the points that people consider when they look at the Iranian situation is the youth of the population and the fact there’s a generational change coming, and that what you don’t want to do between now and, say, 2025 is alienate Iran because time is running out on the current regime, just because of demographics. Do you buy into that argument at all?
COTTON: I think that the—there is a large youth cohort in Iran. And the ayatollahs and their role are not particularly popular with them. That’s one reason why President Obama shouldn’t have ignored the green movement. That’s one of the easiest way to alienate Iranian youth, is to look the other way and ignore them when they’re conducting their own struggle against their government. That’s why, as part of an overarching Iran strategy, we should provide more support for dissidents, for ethnic minorities and for religious minorities – which, I would remind you—make up a near majority in Iran.
SEIB: Right there.
Q: Thank you, Senator. Alex Toma, proud CFR term member, and I lead the Peace and Security Funders Group as well.
So I’m curious what facts on the ground you believe have changed to lead to your conclusion that we can get a better deal now than several years ago.
COTTON: We have a president who’s made it clear that he’s not going to create a consistently false choice between capitulation and heavy mechanized war that lasts for a decade and that doesn’t have popular support among the American people. What did Iran and Russia do when we conducted those air—or, those naval strikes in Syria? They basically just sat there quietly. They sent a sharply worded letter, because they know they have no ability to challenge the United States when we mean business, which we did not under the last administration.
SEIB: Right there, and then over here. With the microphone, please.
Q: Senator Cotton, Mark Dubowitz from FDD. First of all, thank you, sir, for your service.
So AP is reporting that there may be a push by the administration to actually eliminate the whole certification every 90 days. You voted against INAR, as you said, but you’ve also said that the decertification has been a very important source of leverage. Would you be prepared to defend your constitutional prerogative to continue to review the deal, and to continue to require this administration and future administrations to either certify or decertify the deal? Or do you support getting rid of this certification altogether?
COTTON: Well, I certainly would not support eliminating or even weakening the 90-day certification requirement absent much broader changes to the nuclear deal with Iran. If we have the kind of changes that I recommended, in terms of the sunset clauses and centrifuge research and development, the ballistic missile program, embedded within a broader Iran strategy, I would consider it. I would consider maybe extending it. I would consider synchronizing it with some of the other deadlines that this gentleman mentioned so it all comes up together at once. But if there is a movement afoot to eliminate the certification requirement every 90 days simply because it’s inconvenient, I would strongly oppose that.
SEIB: Right there.
Q: Senator, thank you very much. Nick Schifrin. I’m a term member as well as with PBS “NewsHour.”
There’s one criticism of your criticism, if you will, that you didn’t mention, that some of your colleagues, actually, who are critical of the deal raise.
COTTON: A lot of criticism.
Q: Yeah. And that is that actually under this deal they believe they have more intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program than before. And they actually appreciate that and that they want to continue that. And secondly, how do you get a shift in—a fundamental shift in Iranian regime actions with targeted strikes, like those in Syria, given that those strikes didn’t get a fundamental shift in the Syrian regime’s actions? Thanks.
COTTON: So, to your first question, that requires some knowledge of classified matters that I’m not at liberty to discuss. But I will say, I am not personally aware of any substantial new intelligence that we have obtained under the nuclear deal. I’m not personally aware of any substantial new streams of intelligence.
Second, hopefully they’ll change their behavior, as they did once we blew up all their ships and oil platforms, or once we had invaded Iraq and we had troops on both their east and their west border. But if they don’t change their behavior, at least they will not have a nuclear infrastructure. If we get to that point. Again, that’s a bridge that we can cross in a number of months, but better for Iran to have its radical revolutionary regime without a nuclear infrastructure than with that infrastructure.
SEIB: Right there, in the back. Yes, thank you.
Q: I’m Michael Kavoukjian. I’m from White & Case.
One of the many rationalizations for this deal that I heard at the—at the beginning was that the multinational sanctions regime was about to collapse anyway, so we had to enter into the deal quickly. Could you comment on the accuracy of that, and also go into more detail about how we will coerce our allies into sanctions—reimposing sanctions if we have to have a snap back? Thank you.
COTTON: Well, I don’t think that was the case. I think it was a pretext to achieve a policy goal that was existing beforehand. This is in the 2012 to 2013 timeframe, before the JPOA, the preliminary agreement, and then on to the JCPOA.
I mean, ultimately, countries—one, I hope we don’t have to coerce allies. I’d like to persuade allies, since they’re partners. Many of them don’t require much persuasion—our allies in the Middle East, for instance. But ultimately, countries have to make a decision if it comes to that: Do they want to deal with the United States’ $19 trillion economy or do they want to deal with Iran’s economy, which is, at $400 billion, about the size of Maryland’s?
Furthermore, companies have to make that decision. And while certain political leaders may be more willing to bear risk, I’m pretty sure, as I suspect you are in your line of business in dealing with corporate directors and executives and general counsels, they don’t prefer a lot of risk in their lives. And I think we’ve seen that in many cases around the world.
SEIB: We have time for one last question. We’ll do it right there.
COTTON: I’m Michael Krepon and I work at the Stimson Center.
I’ve never heard a more certain speech. Is there anything that gives you pause? Is there anything that you might foresee going badly wrong with the course of action you propose?
COTTON: No. (Laughter.) The enemy gets a vote, of course. And as I said to Jerry’s question, if we take military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, I have been advised by leaders of our allies in the Middle East that they expect Iran to turn up the heat in their countries. They have all still said they’re willing to bear that because they view the stakes as so high.
I’d much rather confront this threat when Iran is a weak and still somewhat isolated country in 2018 than in 2025 or 2030, when they have nuclear-weapons capacity or the ability to break out in a matter of weeks. That’s just the simple case. Western democracies have a strategic deficit in which they always underestimate the threats they face and they’re always willing to kick the can down the road. Eventually you run out of road, as we see in North Korea. I’m certain that I do not want to see Iran go down the path that North Korea has gone.
SEIB: Well, Senator Cotton, I think you’ve gotten the attention of everybody in the audience, probably others today. Thank you very much. And I have a feeling this conversation is beginning, not ending, so maybe we’ll have a chance to renew it later. Thank you very much for being with us.
COTTON: Thank you, Jerry. Thank you. (Applause.)