Cotton, Pompeo And Trump Are A Recipe For War With Iran

In March 2015, the junior Senator from Arkansas ― Tom Cotton ― was derided for writing a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader in the midst of sensitive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, warning that any deal with Iran could be revoked by the next U.S. President “with the stroke of a pen.” The letter, signed by 46 of his colleagues, was unprecedented, helping to blur the lines between partisan politics and serious national security matters and potentially delivering a fatal blow to the notion that politics stops at the water’s edge. It provoked a strong outcry, with many casting the letter as traitorous and Cotton as in over his head. Few could imagine, however, that by today Cotton would be poised to become the next potential director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under a President even more committed to laying waste to the norms of Washington, Donald Trump.

As bad as the Trump administration has been, it can always get worse. And that is precisely what will happen if the Trump administration follows through with a reported plan to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and nominate Tom Cotton to take Pompeo’s old position. Both Cotton, a protege of Iraq war champion Bill Kristol who received nearly a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel in his 2014 Senate campaign, and Pompeo, a former Tea Party Congressman from Kansas until his elevation to CIA Director earlier this year, have been pioneers in blurring the lines between political hackery and national security, a terrifying notion for the potential chief diplomat and a top spymaster. If the moves are finalized, Cotton and Pompeo will do untold damage to U.S. national security, and their first order of business will almost certainly be to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and lay the groundwork for a disastrous war with Iran.

Pompeo and Cotton are close ideological allies on foreign policy, having worked closely to undermine President Obama’s negotiations and later prevent the Iran nuclear deal from surviving Congressional review. In 2014, the two spoke to reporters on the Iran negotiations, with Cotton saying “I hope that Congress’ role will be to put an end to these negotiations.” If there was any doubt what their alternative to negotiations was, Pompeo clarified “In an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.”

Time did little to sober Cotton and Pompeo’s hawkishness on Iran. After the nuclear deal had been finalized that summer, Cotton and Pompeo traveled to Vienna to review the International Atomic Energy Agency’s plan to finalize its long-running investigation into prior, possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. While such plans are routinely kept confidential in order to ensure that the inspected state’s security is not in any way compromised, the pair of hawks spun that technical plan into a nefarious, “secret side deal” they alleged the administration was withholding from the American public. Nothing could be further from the truth, but Cotton and Pompeo used their hyping of the facts to further their campaign against the deal.

Cotton downplayed military action against Iran again in August of 2015, stating “I don’t think any military expert in the United States or elsewhere would say the U.S. military is not capable to setting Iran’s nuclear facilities back to day zero.” Of course, there is a difference between capabilities and what is in the national interest, and many have warned that Iran could quickly reconstitute its program after bombing and move quickly toward a nuclear weapon. Cotton seemed to have recognized this, though the notion of repeatedly bombing Iran – known in hawkish circles as “mowing the lawn” ― did not seem to bother him. “Can we eliminate it (Iran’s nuclear program) forever? No, because any advanced industrialized country can develop nuclear weapons in four to seven years, from zero. But we can set them back to day zero.”

Add to this atrocious track record several other notable efforts from the duo to undermine the Iran nuclear deal during the Trump administration. Pompeo’s last tweet prior to being nominated as CIA Director declared “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.” Pompeo vowed in his confirmation as CIA Director to halt his political efforts to sabotage the deal, which he later backtracked on. In his confirmation, he vowed “While as a Member of Congress I opposed the Iran deal, if confirmed, my role will change. It will be to drive the Agency to aggressively pursue collection operations and ensure analysts have the time, political space, and resources to make objective and methodologically sound judgments.” 

But once on the job, Pompeo made it his pet project to release documents to a hawkish Washington organization in an effort to tie Iran to al-Qaeda, quite literally copying the playbook for the Iraq War. Pompeo also emerged as one of the prime voices urging the President to make the political decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. As reported by Foreign Policy in July, “Although most of Trump’s deputies endorsed certifying that Iran was abiding by the deal, one senior figure has emerged in favor of a more aggressive approach — CIA Director Mike Pompeo. At White House deliberations, the former lawmaker opposed certifying Iran while suggesting Congress weigh in on the issue, officials and sources close to the administration said.” Given that the IAEA has routinely certified Iran’s compliance, such a position was far from Pompeo’s vow that his role would change ― he was still trying to kill the deal, though this time not in Congress, but at the President’s ear.

Who else joined Pompeo’s efforts to push Trump into killing the deal? None other than his pal Tom Cotton, who laid out the case for withholding certification in July in a letter with three of his colleagues. Of course, that letter was full of falsehoods, but that’s par for the course for the man who may be Trump’s next CIA Director. Like his colleague Pompeo, there is little reason to expect Cotton to drop his Iran campaign once he earns a place in the administration.

What of the man that Pompeo would replace, Rex Tillerson? It is indisputable that Tillerson has been a disaster on many fronts, in particular, his campaign to gut the State Department which will do untold damage to American diplomacy for years to come. Yet, on the Iran nuclear deal, Tillerson has actually allied with Secretary of Defense James Mattis to urge Trump against ripping up the deal. The loss of Tillerson, combined with Cotton’s elevation, would mean that Pompeo and Cotton could face little resistance in their campaign to unravel a nuclear accord that is working and downplay the likely alternative ― war.

It’s possible that the reporting is inaccurate and that Cotton will not be elevated to Pompeo’s current position. But if it is, the Trump administration will be a giant step closer towards killing the nuclear deal and taking the US into yet another war of choice in the Middle East. Unless, of course, the American public ― including Trump’s own base ― massively rallies against such folly. 

Congress Lays Tripwires for Iran Nuclear Accord

As negotiators work to clear the final hurdles for a framework nuclear deal with Iran, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) and Ranking Member Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have decided to delay a markup of a bill that would lay tripwires that threaten any final deal. Diplomacy has been given more time to succeed, yet the threat of Congressional obstruction still looms on the horizon. The committee will now consider the bill on April 14 after a two week recess, in what could be the first Congressional action on Iran following a potential diplomatic breakthrough. While Corker has sold the bill as a way to ensure Congress can “weigh in,” on an agreement, legislators supportive of a negotiated solution to the Iran nuclear crisis should recognize the bill for what it is: a dangerously written measure that injects new demands into the negotiations and risks laying the foundation to kill a historic agreement.

There are three major tripwires that the Corker bill would impose on a deal.

First, the legislation would delay implementation of any deal for sixty days while Congress decides whether or not to reject the accord. This poses a major problem because it means Congress would be injecting a new demand into the talks. If an accord is reached, the timeline of a deal will be carefully worked out between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and Iran. Congress would be jumping in at the eleventh hour to demand the negotiators discard the implementation schedule in order to build in a two-month buffer window for Congress to consider whether or not they want to kill the agreement.

Further, one of the major benefits of a nuclear deal is that it would empower Iranian moderates and isolate hardliners who have opposed any form of reconciliation with the West, potentially leading to positive reverberations outside of the nuclear issue. However, unilateral moves by the U.S. Congress to halt implementation would lead to the opposite. The sixty day delay on implementation would give hardliners time to dissect and condemn every Iranian concession, while moderates that brokered the deal would be left to defend the concessions after the U.S. reneged on the timeline and without any tangible sanctions relief to point to. This could complicate the moderates’ ability to fully implement the terms of an agreement and, in turn, enable opponents in the U.S. to retaliate in response.

The second tripwire requires the President to certify throughout the duration of the agreement that Iran is not providing support or financing for terrorism. If the President fails to make the certification, Congress would be empowered to expedite consideration of legislation to snap sanctions back into place, effectively nullifying the deal. Countering Iranian support for terrorism is, of course, a worthwhile and necessary undertaking. However, it should not be inserted into a nuclear deal. We don’t want to be in a position where Iran is upholding the nuclear deal but the President is unable to make certifications on non-nuclear issues, forcing us to renege on the agreement. Such a requirement would shift the goalposts of the negotiations, which are focused solely on the nuclear issue, and guarantee that we get neither a nuclear deal nor address Iranian support for terrorism.

The final tripwire, which has received the most attention, enables Congress to pass a Congressional vote of disapproval to revoke the President’s sanctions waiver authorities. A vote of disapproval would need a simple majority to pass, which could be secured solely through partisan opposition to the agreement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will use the vote of disapproval to turn the screws against Democrats and force anyone who isn’t willing to destroy U.S. international credibility for political gain into taking a very tough vote. Even if they fail to override the expected veto, they will be empowered to continue their efforts to kill a deal after the 60 day review period ends.

The fact that this legislation presents severe complications for negotiations should not come as a surprise. The last several weeks have seen absurd partisan maneuvers by hawkish Republicans aimed at undercutting the negotiations, highlighted by the letter from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-KY) and 46 of his fellow hawks in the Senate warning Iran’s leaders not to trust the President of the United States. S.615 would help these saboteurs achieve their goal of scuttling the talks and lead to an expanding Iranian nuclear program and an increasing likelihood of war.

There are alternative measures available to Congress that would increase Congressional oversight without threatening to scuttle a potentially historic accord. For example, the bill from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the “Iran Congressional Oversight Act” (S.669), would require reports on Iran’s adherence to an agreement and, if Iran violates its commitments, expedite the snapback of sanctions. Further, in the wake of the Helsinki Accords, Congress created an independent commission to monitor signatories’ compliance with the accord. Either the Boxer bill or a Helsinki-like commission could potentially be a workable alternative to S.615. Critically, neither of these options interferes with the implementation timeline, inserts issues outside the scope of negotiations, or risks a rash rejection of what would be a historic, multilateral agreement.

As the parties inch ever closer to a historic agreement, would-be Congressional spoilers will only intensify their efforts to throw a wrench in the works. Legislators who want to secure a diplomatic solution shouldn’t ease their path by supporting S.615.

This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.