A one-topic blog: how is it that the most imminent and lethal implication for humankind - the fact that the doctrine of "Mutually Assured Destruction" will not work with Iran - is not being discussed in our media? Until it is recognized that MAD is dead, the Iranian threat will be treated as a threat only to Israel and not as the global threat which it in fact is.
A blog by Mladen Andrijasevic
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Tom Cotton: Obama's Iran Deal May Lead to Nuclear War
Tom Cotton strikes me as the most interesting Senate
freshman for any number of reasons, not least of which is his uncanny ability
to draw attention to himself, most notably when he convinced 46 of his
Republican colleagues to sign anopen
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In the letter, Cotton, the extremely junior
senator from Arkansas—he's the youngest member of the Senate, at 37—and his
co-signers warned Khamenei that Congress might use its power to overturn or, at
the very least, modify whatever agreement the Iranian regime eventually chooses
to sign with President Obama and his great-power allies.
The letter made Cotton a hero
among those who believe, as he told me in an interview last week, that Obama's
deal is not a deal at all, but instead simply a "list of
concessions." To his critics, Cotton's decision to argue publicly to a
longstanding American adversary that the U.S. president's word is not binding
was semi-mutinous or, at a minimum, despicable.
I went to speak to Cotton not
only because his letter interested me, but because he is quite obviously
positioned to lead the most hawkish wing of the Republican Party. He is
exceedingly bright, and blessed with a wonk's mind—I will readily admit that
his knowledge of Middle East minutiae is impressive, even if I disagree with
much of his analysis. And he is a superior standard-bearer for the confront-Iran-before-it's-too-late
faction in the Senate because, as an Iraq combat veteran, he cannot be labeled
Goldberg: You’ve argued that an attack on a group of Iranian
nuclear sites would not lead to all-out war. It seems to me that an American
attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would lead to an indirect response—or a somewhat
direct response—by Iran against America’s Gulf allies, or against American
facilities in the Gulf, and that an even more certain response would come from
Hezbollah in the form of a sustained rocket salvo against Israel. That doesn't
seem credible to you?
Senator Tom Cotton:
Well,Operation Desert Fox[against Iraqi facilities] in 1998 lasted a
number of days. [Former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister] Ehud Barak
just said that he thought it would just take one night.
I'm talking about the second-order consequences.
consulted with various senior members of the Israeli government over the years,
and they're aware of the possibility that Iran might use Hezbollah, in
particular, to retaliate in an asymmetric way for any military strikes, either
American or Israeli, and the assessment I've heard from them is that while that
is a risk, it is a risk they can manage. This is different from what you might
have seen nine years ago during the Hezbollah war in 2006, or even five years
ago, when the talk of an Israeli strike was at its peak, in large part because
of Iron Dome [an anti-missile system], and also because of the strain that
sanctions have put on Iran—its ability to fund these kinds of operations and
continue to replenish Hezbollah and their weapon stocks.
that's the Israeli side. What about the response in the Gulf, whether against
Gulf allies or against American facilities in Bahrain or Central Command itself
in Qatar? These things don't worry you?
think the president is his own worst witness against this proposed course of
action. He said in, I would say, almost mocking terms, in reference to the
Iranian military over the weekend, that they know they can't challenge us—we
spend $600 billion a year on our military, they spend $30 billion a year on
theirs. This is correct. Not only do we have the ability to
substantially degrade their nuclear facilities, but we have the capability,
along with our Gulf allies, who have increased their military spending by over
50 percent, to largely protect them from any kind of retaliatory air or naval
to the deal. There's nothing in it that's fixable to your mind?
there's no deal within the framework, in my opinion. There's a long list of
concessions that Iran's leaders continue to dispute they actually made. This
written, is only a success within the specific reality they've created.
And they created a very narrow and risky reality in which they were focused on
getting any kind of deal they could. Now we're to the point where it is
considered unrealistic to expect the United States to demand that Iran not
engage in terrorism while we’re granting them nuclear concessions. I thought
that [Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs] Yuval Steinitz
had a good list of proposed changes to the president's proposal, and I don't
think you can argue those changes are unrealistic, because all he did was take
all the statements that President Obama and John Kerry and [chief U.S.
negotiator] Wendy Sherman made at the very outset of these negotiations about
stockpiles of enriched uranium, about the past military dimensions of this program,
about inspections and so forth. The positions he lists are positions that our
government previously held.
you were president right now, would you not be engaged in this negotiation at
all? Would you issue an ultimatum?
go back almost two years now, when I was one of 400 members of the House who
voted for stronger sanctions against Iran. This is the summer of 2013. Those
didn't pass in the Senate because the White House put immense pressure on
Senate Democrats not to sponsor it, and Harry Reid didn't bring it to the
floor. I certainly would have—if I had been advising the president at the
time—gone ahead with those sanctions. I mean, he fought againstCISADA sanctions [the Iran sanctions act],
ultimately accepting them only when they passed 99-0. But I wouldn't have
started down this course of granting concessions to Iran, giving them billions
of dollars when in return all we're getting is their willingness to sit at the
table. They should be pleading with us to come to the table. And at numerous
times through the negotiations, we should have been willing to walk away from
the table and put more pressure on Iran
Did the criticism about your open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei resonate with
you at all? The idea that you are telling a foreign adversary, ‘Don't trust in
our president—the man who's making our foreign policy?’ Did that cause you to
ask yourself, 'Maybe I am undermining the executive branch?'
in part because the letter didn't say that. The letter simply stated
indisputable facts of constitutional law, and Iran's leaders needed to hear
that message, and they needed to hear it from us. What we did was certainly
more measured than what past senators had done, in conciliating with people
like Manuel Noriega, Bashar al-Assad, or Leonid Brezhnev. The difference is we
openly stood up to a dictator, and in a lot of those past precedents, Senate
Democrats privately conciliated and coddled dictators.
do you think your general outlook is so disparaged, even in parts of the
Republican Party? I don't mean the Rand Paul wing, even. I mean, I hear from
Republicans who are wary of going down a path that would lead to another Middle
East war. Or let me put this another way: Do you believe that the country is
tired of these sorts of wars and of this kind of engagement?
think that Americans—and this is not true just now, but over the years—are not
fundamentally opposed to war. They're fundamentally opposed to losing wars. And
that's one reason why President Bush lost support for the Iraq War in the
period of 2004 to 2006.
we have to win wars quickly to make them popular?
don't think we have to win quickly necessarily, but we have to win. By the time
the 2008 election arrived, we had finally won the Iraq War, or we were on the
road to winning it. We won starting in the summer of 2007 going into late 2011.
Had President Obama, for instance, accepted our commanders' recommendations to
keep a small residual force in Iraq, I think the country would have supported
that decision. Also, the predictions of so many at the time have now proven
correct—that there was a chance that Iraq, absent American forces, would be
destabilized, and ultimately now we may end up with more troops in Iraq at the
end of this president's tenure than we would have if he had just accepted his
commanders' recommendations in 2011 to keep a residual force in place.
In the same way, this
president, knowing that Americans don't want to lose a war, and in our most
recent experience in Iraq, the war looked to be won, he’s now trying to create
what he always accuses his opponents of trying to create: a false choice—'this
deal or war.' And he defines war in Iran as 150,000 heavy mechanized troops,
not something like Operation Desert Fox.
me just come back to this one point. How do you know you're right? The
experience of Iraq taught me that once the kinetic piece starts, you just don’t
know for sure what’s going to happen. And I don't know that you can predict the
response of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to a direct American assault
on [the Iranian facilities of] Natanz, Fordow, and Parchin. Maybe they will be
intimidated into silence, but maybe they'll lose their minds? Yes, it's a
$30-billion defense budget, but they have asymmetric ways of making life
miserable for the United States and its allies. So how are you so sure that the
response of the Iranians to an attack that would destroy their nuclear
infrastructure, at least temporarily, would be limited and/or manageable?
you never know these things for sure, but I think history provides me
precedents. I mean not just, for instance, [the Israeli attack on the Iraqi
reactor at] Osirak or the [Syrian nuclear reactor], but also, for instance, in
the tanker operations in '87 and '88, when we helped secure free transit in the
Persian Gulf. Iran did ultimately pull in its horns to some degree because they
realized that Ronald Reagan was serious when he made those promises, when we
flagged those vessels. And we do have amazing capability gaps over a country
like Iran, as Israel does. We also have the support of allies throughout the region
that traditionally have not been as supportive as we might like for operations
What is Obama seeking here, in your mind?
I think he clearly wants to have a kind of grand rapprochement with Iran. This
goes back to his actions in his earliest days, when he was silent in the face
of [Iran's] Green Revolution, and even some of his statements in the campaign.
What's wrong with wanting a grand rapprochement with Iran?
would love to see that happen. As Secretary Schultz and Secretary Kissingerwrote,
they've been in government when Iran was an ally, not just of the United States
but of Israel. The Iranian people, if you look at their demographics and their
level of education, could be a strong source for stability in the Middle East.
The problem is they're run by an apocalyptic cult of ayatollahs.
do you know they're apocalyptic?
They seem to respond to incentives unlike, say, North Korea. Obviously, in
2003, when they thought that George W. Bush was pivoting their direction, they
ceased doing work on their nuclear program, correct? They do seem to respond to
react to threats that are severe enough. But it would be different if they had
nuclear weapons. They refer to Israel as a "one-bomb state," which as
you know means that Israel can be annihilated with one bomb. And they know as
long as they don't have nuclear weapons that they are susceptible to the United
States military, whether it was Reagan's actions in the tanker war or a fear of
being next in 2003, as Muammar Qaddafi was at the time. But I think you can't
count on that kind of attitude if they were to get nuclear weapons. I also
think that Iran is more skillful at playing off of Western delusions than is
the Kim regime [in North Korea].
Come back to the grand rapprochement that you talked about. One school of
thought holds that President Obama wants to simply create equilibrium in the
Middle East that would allow us to actually get out of the Middle East.
I think there's something to that, if he wants to try and create a balance of
power between Sunni and Shiites and simply exit the Middle East, or at least
continue an ill-advised pivot to East Asia. I say ill-advised not because East
Asia is not an important part of the world, but because the global superpower
can't pivot. You have to be focused everywhere. So I think there's some of
that. I mean, I think he believes fundamentally that American strength and
leadership in the world has been as much a source of instability and disorder
as it has been stability and order.
What are you implying? That he believes that America can be a force for bad as
well as good in the world?
that, if America was less of a leader in the world, then the world would
probably be a better and more stable place. Unlike President Obama, I would say
that I support the long-standing bipartisan post-War belief that American
global strength and leadership secures our national-security interests and it also
promotes order and stability in the world. And it gives us immense influence in
the world, and deters our adversaries and reassures our allies.
do you think the Middle East is the way it is today?
do you mean by ‘the way it is?’
State disintegration, Sunni-Shiite proxy wars, chaotic, brutal, shocking
violence, no particular hope for democratic development at the moment, and so
on. There are two branches to the question. The first is: Is this beyond our
control? Are the problems so big that there's nothing we can do about it? And
the related question is: Are we equipped with knowledge, willpower, staying
power to actually go in and try to create order out of the chaos?
think we can exercise a greater degree of control than we have, although that's
not to say that it's simply within our control, of course. It's a large and
complicated region with many different influencers and players, but because of
American retreat I think we have contributed to the instability there. Take the
Islamic State, for instance. If we had maintained a small, residual force in
Iraq, I don't think the Islamic State would have risen to power as it has.
I take you one step backward and ask this question: If we hadn't ripped the lid
off Iraq—in other words, if we had left the Sunni strongman in place—would any
of this be happening today?
would have remained a security threat over the last 12 years, because Iraq was
a non-stop security threat from the moment Saddam Hussein took power in the
1970s. So it's hard to predict how that security threat would have manifested
itself, but there’s no doubt that Iraq would have been an ongoing source of
security threats to the United States and our allies and instability in the
region. I was in Iraq in the worst period, 2006, but from 2006 to 2008, and
especially through 2011, the American military and the government of Iraq made
huge strides in making that country a source of stability with a relatively
representative government that was seeking pluralistic engagement from all the
factions within the government. I'm not saying it was a panacea, but it was
much better than it ever had been and than many people thought it could be.
Stay back in 2006. When you were there, did it ever cross your mind, ‘We're in
over our heads. What are we doing here? These people hate each other so much
that there's nothing we can do to fix this.’ I mean, you were younger then, you
didn't have as much exposure to different ideas—
become more moderate with age.
Goldberg:Tell me what you thought.
Cotton: No, I
never thought we were in over our head. I never thought it was hopeless. But I
did know that we were losing. I had no doubt about that. I felt it. And I would
say almost everyone on the front lines—by which I'd say battalion level or
below, most of the people who were really out patrolling—knew it. You know, we
didn't have enough troops, we didn't have the right strategy, and we weren't
making any progress, which meant we were losing.
you think that the mistake—if you even accept the word mistake—of the invasion
was getting involved at all, or was it bad planning that brought the U.S. to
the near-abyss of 2006?
think it was an underemphasis on security in the early days, in 2003 and 2004.
Security is sine qua non. I'd say there was too much focus on second-order
steps necessary in that kind of environment, like building governmental
structures and promoting economic development, none of which can occur without
basic security. We simply didn't have the troops-to-task ratio needed to
sustain our presence.
don't meet that many people these days who think that the problems in Iraq were
due to planning issues, study issues, rather than an underlying, faulty
premise. And obviously this brings us to the way we think of Iran. We believe
we have a limited set of options in Iran because many people in Washington and
other places have ruled out the idea of engaging in a kinetic, preemptive
strike because of their experience of watching Iraq spin out of control after
America intervened in a difficult problem. That's why I find it so interesting
that you believe there are answers to these questions.
I mean, I think the answers were largely found and executed effectively from
2007 to 2011. Again, it's something that many thinkers in the military—not
necessarily the highest level—thought in the 2003-2006 timeframe. The ones on
the front lines understood. We could hear it from Iraqis. You can imagine what
it would be like in an American city if you had a foreign army that was
supposed to be providing security that didn't speak your language and came out
for six-hour patrols and then went back to base three hours later, when you
have someone who did speak your language there saying, 'When they leave, we're
going to kill you.' Who are they going to side with? It's the same problem that
we have with organized crime in urban areas. So, we saw that, and we saw what
was going on and we saw what could go right, and I think that's what happened
after the [Iraq troop] surge occurred. You know, it’s important in war that you
defeat your enemy and to have your enemy know that he’s been defeated. The
heart of the Sunni resistance, which became the heart of al-Qaeda in Iraq,
didn't see that.
Goldberg:Do you believe there's any condition in
which Barack Obama would use force against Iran?
hope there are conditions under which the leaders of Iran and most Middle
Eastern leaders think that the United States would take military action against
Iran. But Iran does not believe that America has a credible threat of force
against them right now. I think that's clear from their behavior. It's also
something that senior Arab leaders have communicated directly to me—that very
few people, if any, in the Middle East believe that there is a credible threat
of force by the United States. I think Iran does fear that Israel may strike
them. To the extent that there is daylight between the United States and
Israel—to use the president's term from 2009—it makes the threat of Israeli
military action less credible in the leaders of Iran's minds. So I do think
that there may be some policy objective in trying to create this kind of
daylight with the government of Israel, to further dissuade their leadership
from taking action if they deem it necessary to their national survival.
What conditions do you believe would have to obtain before Barack Obama would
use military force against Iran?
now I'd say they'd have to be very severe. If that Iranian naval fleet mined or
otherwise blocked traffic through the Mandeb Strait, I hope that we would take
prompt action to reopen it and punish them appropriately. But that's about as
severe as it gets in international relations.
Let’s go to the nuclear deal.
list of concessions.
that what you call it?
not a deal.
Well, you wouldn’t agree that the Iranians made tremendous concessions?
could a provisional decision to reduce their stockpile from 10,000 kilograms to
300 kilograms of highly enriched uranium not be understood by you as a
still unclear when or how they will do that—
use the word provisional because we don't know anything about a final deal yet.
unclear how and when they'll do that. It's unclear how that will relate to the
number of centrifuges they'll be able to maintain. And I don't think of almost
anything to which they've agreed as much of a concession when, by the terms of
their own proposal, President Obama has conceded that Iran will build and
develop a nuclear weapon 11 years from today.
willing to see that both sides have domestic constituencies, and they're going
to work things the way they work them. But let me get to the—
Cotton: No, I
think it's different than just domestic constituencies. President Obama plainly
said at the Saban Forum in December 2013 that Iran does not need an underground
fortified bunker at Fordow. We have now conceded that they will have centrifuge
cascades in that bunker.
spinning uranium though.
doesn't really matter what they spin as long as they're developing the
technology and the skill sets to do it. I don't think President Obama or anyone
on his negotiating team intends to walk back that concession. I don’t see any
circumstance under which they will say, 'We insist on the closing of Fordow.' I
do, however, see the supreme leader of Iran walking back on virtually
everything they're presumed to have agreed to. They did it just last week on
exporting their enriched uranium stockpiles to Russia, something that long ago
had been conceded.
Let’s say it's June 30, and you’ve won. You and the Republicans and some of the
Democrats have managed to kill this deal. What happens on July 1? Does Iran
say, 'Screw you all. You can keep sanctions in place but we're going to
continue to spin and we're going to move toward breakout.' And so you have a
situation in which Iran might have a nuke in six months as opposed to 12 years?
How is that a better situation?
Cotton:If they accept the terms of the deal they
could be in the same position regardless in one year. They could just cheat on
the deal anyway. There is a long and ignominious history of rogue regimes like
Iran accepting these deals and immediately starting to cheat, as happened in
North Korea, as happened in Iraq. The idea that a one-year breakout time—even
if you thought that was technically correct—the idea that all of a sudden
you're going to have inspectors catch this in a country the size of Iran, who
immediately are able to report back, and then you’re going to develop a
consensus in the civilized world, at the [International Atomic Energy Agency]
or the UN Security Council, and then you're going to impose sanctions and those
sanctions will not have any effect in a year—this is just fanciful, completely
fanciful. So I don't think the proposal actually improves the situation that
much, and it could ultimately pave the path for Iran to get a nuclear weapon,
whether they follow the proposal or violate the proposal.
don't get the sense that you're in total disagreement with Barack Obama on one
point, which is that if there is no deal, the likelihood of a military
confrontation as the solution becomes very, very high.
I think we should try to get a better deal, and one way to try and get a better
deal is to show the Iranians that we're serious about getting a better deal.
would you do that? Let's say you're Wendy Sherman for a day. What do you do?
take last week. It was reported that President Obama told his negotiators,
'Blow through the deadline, but make it clear that we're willing to walk away.'
I don't think that's a result of Barack Obama being inexperienced or
incompetent or a bad negotiator. I think it's a reflection of his ideological
commitment to get a deal at any cost.
go to this point: He says that if we don't have a deal, then you, the people
who are against the deal, are actually saying that we need a military solution.
not saying that. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu did not say that
in his joint address [to Congress] and I'm not saying that. I'm saying that we
have to be willing and we have to make the leadership of Iran realize that we
are willing to take military action.
you're not advocating for a 1998 Desert Fox-style operation?
Iran's leaders need to know that we have both the capability and the
willingness to take that kind of action. Unfortunately, when your
commander-in-chief draws red lines and then he erases them, that sends a very
dangerous signal to allies and adversaries alike.
me ask you this: The last nice thing that Benjamin Netanyahu ever said about
Barack Obamahe said to
me, when he praised the deal that removed most of Syria’s chemical
weapons. You could see the Iran deal as the same sort of thing: 'You give up
this component of your WMD program, and then you, the regime, can remain in
power.' From the Israeli perspective, that was not a bad thing—to get rid of
the chemical-weapons depots right next door.
Cotton: So it's simply
led [the Syrian regime] to more chemical attacks in different form, and it has
strengthened Iran's hand and Russia's hand in the region. I mean, it's widely
reported that President Obama in his private letter to Khamenei, not his open
letter, basically granted Iran a legitimate sphere of interest in Syria,
reassuring Iran that our campaign against the Islamic State, meek as it has
proven to be, would not endanger Assad continuing in power.
What would you do in Syria right now?
would certainly be taking the fight to the Islamic State more aggressively—
What about to Assad?
say that the Islamic State is the more immediate threat, and Syria is their
base of power—eastern and southern Syria—and right now, even in Iraq, the
operations are too restrained. So I'd be taking the fight to the Islamic State
much more aggressively. You know, Syria's a great example of how you need to
try to nip these problems in the bud. They never get better with time. If you
let these problems fester, then they continue to grow. That's the lesson time
and time and time again. Obviously that's the lesson of the 1930s, but if you
don't want to go to that example, then just look at what happened in the
Balkans in the early 1990s.
Wait, is this the 1930s to you?
unfair to Neville Chamberlain to compare him to Barack Obama, because Neville
Chamberlain's general staff was telling him he couldn't confront Hitler and
even fight to a draw—certainly not defeat the German military—until probably
1941 or 1942. He was operating from a position of weakness. With Iran, we
negotiated privately in 2012-2013 from a position of strength, not a position
of weakness. The secret negotiations in Oman. This ultimately led to the Joint
Plan of Action of November 2013. So we were negotiating from a position of
strength—not just inherent military strength of the United States compared to
Iran, but also from our strategic position.
obviously don't believe that this deal could have an ameliorating effect on
Iran—that it could strengthen the hands of the moderates who want to rejoin the
international community in some kind of way.
Cotton: I am
skeptical that there are many moderates within the leadership—
don't consider [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani a moderate?
and I don't think the students he oppressed in 1999 would consider him a
moderate. [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, you know, a famous moderate, called for
the nuclear annihilation of Israel. I don't consider that to be moderate
either. I think it's kind of like the search for the vaunted moderates in the
Kremlin throughout most of the Cold War, with the exception that we could
always count on the Soviet leadership to be concerned about national survival
in a way that I don't think we can count on a nuclear-armed Iranian leadership
to be solely concerned about national survival.
I would also just say that there
are actions over the last two years that have disproved the thesis that there
might be these emerging moderates who are ready to take the reins of powers,
that Iran can change its behavior as long as the ayatollahs are in power. I
mean, just look at what they've done throughout the region. Why would we grant
them these concessions? I mean, imagine, if they get a nuclear weapon, they'll
have a nuclear umbrella and then that'll be tremendously destabilizing. I think
it will probably lead to the detonation of a nuclear device somewhere in the
world, if not outright nuclear war. But it could even just lead to greater
conventional threats. What would Hezbollah do if their sponsor had a nuclear
Goldberg:Is it unfair of me to say that if we
follow the course that you would have us follow, there is a high likelihood
that the president will be facing, within the year, an Iran moving toward
breakout, because—what’s the Janis Joplin line?—‘Freedom’s just another word
for nothing to lose’? If they don't get their sanctions lifted or they don't
get a deal, then they'll just go for breakout. So, is it unfair of me to say
that your path would lead us to either total capitulation to a nuclear Iran or
a military confrontation with Iran within the next six to 18 months?
think the more likely outcome is a total capitulation because of the proposal
that we have made. I also think that military confrontation is possible,
although it would be a conventional military confrontation. If we agreed to the
kind of proposal the Obama administration has made, then military confrontation
may be further off, but it might also be nuclear.
Wait—that’s interesting and clarifying—you actually see the possibility of
nuclear military confrontation 10 years down the road if this deal goes
Twenty years, 10 years, 12 years, who knows? The proposal puts Iran on the path
to being a nuclear-arms state, and I think once Iran becomes a nuclear-arms
state, this will lead inevitably to some kind of military confrontation. It may
not be initially with the United States, but I think that's virtually
so your feeling is, deal with the problem now, before it gets worse?
security matters, this is almost always the case.
if that means dealing with it militarily, then deal with it militarily?
world probably wishes that Great Britain had rebuilt its defenses and stopped
Germany from reoccupying the Rhineland in 1936. Churchill said when Chamberlain
came back from Munich, 'You had a choice between war and dishonor. You chose
dishonor and you will therefore be at war.' And when President Obama likes to
say, 'It's this deal or war,' I would dispute that and say, 'It's this deal or
a better deal through stronger sanctions and further confrontation with
[Iran's] ambitions and aggression in the region.' And if it is military action,
I would say it's more like Operation Desert Fox or the tanker war of the 1980s
than it is World War II. In the end, I think if we choose to go down the path
of this deal, it is likely that we could be facing nuclear war.