What’s Really Behind Tom Cotton’s Opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal


The Iran nuclear deal is in critical condition. And if it does ultimately die an untimely death, one of the key figures implicated in its demise will be Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Cotton is one of the most vocal proponents of the administration’s plan to decertify the 2015 agreement and escalate pressure on Iran. Earlier this week, he publicly told Trump’s reluctant secretaries of state and defense to either “move out and execute” the president’s plan on Iran or get out of the way by resigning. Cotton’s confrontational approach to Iran is by no means new. In March 2015, in a remarkable (and perhaps illegal) effort to damage the ongoing negotiations, Cotton and his Senate Republican colleagues wrote a letter to Tehran warning that any agreement reached would be considered “nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.”

Even though the International Atomic Energy Agency and key members of Trump’s own administration have reported that Iran is complying with the agreement, the White House has reportedly concluded that the deal is not in the national interests of the United States. If the Trump administration does indeed decertify the agreement in the coming days, this will put the ball in Congress’ court, which will have sixty days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA).

If Congress re-imposes sanctions, it could lead Tehran to reinvigorate its nuclear program, causing the JCPOA to unravel and increasing the risk that Iran acquires nuclear weapons or that war breaks out in the region. Even if Congress chooses not to re-instate the penalties, decertification would raise questions about the credibility of U.S. nonproliferation commitments, an issue of obvious relevance today as the United States hopes to achieve limits on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Given Iran’s apparent compliance with the JCPOA and the potentially grave consequences of decertification, it is worth interrogating the logic and motives behind the decision to adopt a more confrontational approach toward Iran. Cotton‘s recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations is of special significance here, as The Washington Post has reported that his address seemed “to preview the main elements of the administration’s plan” for dealing with Iran, starting with decertifying the JCPOA. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, approvingly tweeted that Cotton’s speech showed “clear understanding of the Iranian regime and flaws in the nuclear deal.”

If one reads the speech closely, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Cotton’s actual goal is not attaining a better nuclear deal, but rather confronting Iran militarily and achieving regime change. Several passages in the speech clearly telegraph this objective, as do Cotton’s prior statements. The senator also so grossly misrepresents the JCPOA that one has to question whether he is more interested in improving the agreement or destroying it. Finally, Cotton’s own arguments contradict the notion that he seeks a better deal and instead imply that military force or regime change are the only viable options. Put simply: Cotton’s advocacy for a better nuclear agreement is a smokescreen for his true objective, which is putting the United States and Iran back on a path towards war.

Overtly Pushing Regime Change

Cotton frames the speech as offering a prudent strategy for improving the deal and pushing back on Tehran’s aggressive regional behavior. Yet it is obvious at several points that regime change is the senator’s deeper goal. Early on in the address, Cotton argues, “The threat is not the nature of Iran’s weapons; it’s the nature of Iran’s regime.” This is an explicit declaration that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is not the primary issue, and that the Iranian threat can only be fully addressed through regime change, not through technical arms control arrangements.

Cotton’s desire for regime change is further illustrated by his critique of the Obama administration’s decision to ease sanctions pressure in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear program. As he puts it, the multilateral sanctions

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.

The macabre wording clearly implies that Cotton believes the Obama administration should have “choked out” the Iranian regime by keeping the sanctions in place, rather than using the promise of sanctions relief as a carrot to negotiate limits to Iran’s nuclear program.

If you doubt this analysis of Cotton’s speech, you can take his own word for it. Earlier this year, he stated flatly, “The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” adding, “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism.”

Misrepresenting the JCPOA

If Cotton truly sought to improve the nuclear agreement, you might expect him to have a reasonably accurate understanding of the deal’s strengths and weaknesses. Instead, his speech repeatedly and blatantly misrepresents the JCPOA, undercutting the credibility of any legitimate critiques he may have.

Cotton calls the JCPOA “a one-sided, temporary agreement that enables Iran’s campaign of imperial aggression.” It is not one-sided. Among many other limitations, Iran dismantled more two-thirds of its centrifuges, dramatically reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium, and agreed to convert its Arak reactor to reduce proliferation risks. Iran agreed to stringent monitoring provisions as well, including unusual steps such as oversight of its uranium mines and nuclear supply chain.

Cotton is correct that many of the key limitations are temporary, lasting from eight to 25 years, but he is completely wrong to say that these sunset provisions “are unprecedented in nuclear nonproliferation efforts.” Indeed, the most important nonproliferation agreement in history—the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or NPT—had a 25-year sunset clause and only became indefinite through the agreement of the parties in 1995. Many other successful nuclear accords—including the SALT I, START I, and New START agreements—had similar sunset provisions. Such provisions may not be ideal, but history shows that they are often necessary for reaching an agreement, and that agreements can be extended after the initial duration elapses.

Cotton claims that the JCPOA promotes Iranian aggression, such as through intervention in the Syrian civil war and support for Hezbollah and other militant groups. But even if this is true, this aggression would likely be worse if Iran acquired nuclear weapons and could use a nuclear deterrent as a shield, an eventuality the JCPOA is designed to prevent. This is precisely why Secretary of Defense James Mattis supports the deal: He would “rather confront a non-nuclear Iran.”

Equally errant is Cotton’s statement that that JCPOA is worse than the Agreed Framework, which he argues “at least purported to foreclose plutonium reprocessing.” The JCPOA also bars reprocessing, for at least 15 years.

Perhaps the most galling claim in Cotton’s speech is that the agreement “ends with the United States making Iran a legitimate and lawful nuclear power.” Both the JCPOA and NPT indefinitely commit Iran to not pursue or develop nuclear weapons; this would not change if and when the sunset provisions in the JCPOA kicked in. Even if Iran withdrew from the NPT like North Korea and managed to develop nuclear weapons in spite of international opposition, it would not become a “legitimate” or “lawful” nuclear weapons state, a status reserved in the NPT for the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China.

Lack of Strategy and Internal Contradictions

If Cotton’s real objective were to negotiate a better deal, you would also expect him to have a realistic strategy for achieving this end. But he has no viable proposal for how the Trump administration will convince its European allies—let alone Russia and China—to renegotiate an agreement that they support and believe is working. And as Colin Kahl has persuasively argued, absent a united front with its international partners, the United States would be seeking “to produce 150 percent of the current deal” with less leverage than it had in 2015, which he rightly observes “ignores the laws of diplomatic physics.”

In addition to the lack of a coherent strategy, there are two key contradictions in Cotton’s argument that help to lay bare his true motives. First, he claims to want to negotiate a better deal, yet suggests that the United States cannot confidently monitor Iran’s nuclear activities and that the regime in Iran would never abide by an agreement. As he puts it:

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?

But if the Iranian regime can’t be trusted to abide by an agreement, and U.S. and IAEA intelligence cannot effectively verify Iranian behavior, what’s the point of negotiating even a better deal? Getting rid of sunset provisions or securing true “anytime, anywhere” inspections, including at military facilities, would not solve the problem of a covert program, which almost by definition would be housed in a secret location. Cotton’s claims that the Iranian regime cannot be trusted to follow any agreement—and that the United States is powerless to detect a covert program—is not an argument for a better deal, it’s an argument against the idea of any deal at all. And that means Cotton is either advocating regime change or preventive military action.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Cotton is supremely confident about the ability of the United States to successfully use military threats and brute military force against Iran. The senator argues that “the credible threat of military action may be all that’s needed to change the regime’s behavior,” and that “the United States has the ability to totally destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.”

But this leads to a second crucial contradiction: If the United States has this ability, and a credible threat of force is all that is needed, then there is no need to negotiate a better deal. The Trump administration could simply reiterate what its predecessors made clear: that if Iran appeared to nearing a nuclear weapons capability, this would lead to military action. In fact, the JCPOA makes the threat of force in this scenario more credible. After all, an American strike would have greater legitimacy if Iran was clearly violating an international agreement. The JCPOA also improves U.S. intelligence on the Iranian program and requires Iran to concentrate its operational centrifuges in the more vulnerable Natanz facility.

The problem, of course, is that Cotton’s ultimate goal, along with those of other prominent JCPOA opponents, is not a better nuclear deal, but putting Iran and the United States back on a path to military confrontation. If the Trump administration decertifies the Iran nuclear agreement and pursues a “better deal” even while some of its most prominent domestic allies advocate regime change, this will only communicate to Iran and the world that the United States cannot be trusted, reducing the odds that Iran, North Korea, and future proliferators will agree to concessions. It would also make acquiring a nuclear arsenal more attractive to Iran, as a way to prevent precisely the regime change operation that Cotton and other JCPOA opponents advocate.

Before embarking on the perilous path that Cotton advocates, members of Congress, Trump administration officials, and the American public need to be clear-eyed about the real motivations at play. Rather than a first step toward a better nuclear deal, if Cotton gets his way it may instead be the prelude to confrontation and war.


Nicholas Miller is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. His book, “Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of U.S. Nonproliferation Policy,” is forthcoming with Cornell University Press in 2018. Find him on Twitter @Nick_L_Miller.

Image: Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons