InterviewSenator slams what is potentially 'the worst agreement in American foreign policy history'

Battle against Iran deal far from over, US senator vows in Israel

New revelations of side agreements and Tehran’s aggressive behavior may sway undecided lawmakers, Tom Cotton says

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Sen. Tom Cotton speaking to Israeli reporters in his Washington office, August 4, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)
Sen. Tom Cotton speaking to Israeli reporters in his Washington office, August 4, 2015 (Raphael Ahren)

The fight against the Iran nuclear agreement in the American Congress is not yet lost, a US Senator said Tuesday in Jerusalem, expressing the hope that further revelations of secret side deals or aggressive Iranian behavior could move undecided lawmakers to oppose the pact.

“We can’t say the battle is lost yet,” Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), a prominent opponent of the nuclear deal the US and five world powers signed with Iran in July, told The Times of Israel.

Many aspects of the Iran deal are still unknown, Cotton said. If new details emerge on secret side deals between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran’s past military nuclear work, “it wouldn’t surprise me to see certain senators in Congress reconsidering their past support.”

A recent Associated Press report indicated that Iran will be allowed to inspect its military site at Parchin itself, which many critics said showed the deal is inadequate in determining the true extent of the regime’s past military nuclear work.

Furthermore, Iran continues to take “extremely provocative actions, for instance with the missiles fired into northern Israel last week,” Cotton said.

Tehran is engaged in “many hot wars” throughout the Middle East, “and there’s no telling what kind of rash, provocative action they could take over the next two to four weeks that might influence the US Congress as well,” he added.

“Many things can change, both around the debate on the deal itself, and Iran’s actions in the region over the next two weeks. So until there’s a bill that passes a vote in Congress and is vetoed by the president and then the veto is upheld by the Congress, we cannot say the deal is approved.”

Congress is likely to vote against the Iran deal later this month, but President Barack Obama has announced he would veto any such legislation. He would then need a third of votes in either the Senate or the House of Representatives to be able to sustain his veto over an attempted override vote. So far, 31 Senators have declared their support for the deal, which means that he need only to convince only three more in order to secure the deal.

But Cotton, who in March wrote a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warning him that Obama had no authority to sign a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, said he won’t stop trying to scuttle the agreement until the very last day.

“Until there are 34 votes — I don’t refer to 34 declared voters but to 34 votes, because a lot of things can happen even in the next two weeks — I for one will not stop fighting, because of the dangerous consequences of this deal for the United States, Israel and world peace,” he said.

“However, it is very sad that the president is now portraying as a potential victory the fact that he might get a one-third-plus-one-vote in one chamber of the US Congress in favor of this deal. It’s unprecedented in the history of American foreign policy, and I think it will make this deal the worst international agreement in American foreign policy history.”

Sen. Tom Cotton with PM Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office, September 31, 2015 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Sen. Tom Cotton with PM Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office, September 31, 2015 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Echoing talking points by Israeli government officials and American opponents of the nuclear pact, Cotton said a better accord is possible were Congress to reject the current deal and maintain US sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The international sanctions regime would not crumble if the US were to withdraw its support for the deal, he asserted.

“There might be some uncertainty in the short term but in the end, when given a choice between dealing with US economy, which is quarter of the world’s economic activity, or with Iran, whose economy is somewhere between the size of the state of Maryland or the state of Washington, I believe most countries and most companies would ultimately not go back to Iran,” he said.

Cotton — at 38 the youngest incumbent US senator — is currently on a weeklong tour through Israel. Earlier this week met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. “There is no one better to discuss the impact of a nuclear Iran, both in the Middle East and in the world,” he declared on his website after his meeting with Netanyahu Monday.

The freshman senator discussed with Netanyahu and Ya’alon ways to strengthen the US-Israel alliance and efforts to confront Iran, “because whatever happens with the vote in Congress, it won’t be the end of the story with Iran but only another chapter in it,” he told The Times of Israel. “We didn’t discuss particular measures because we’re focused on the current deal.”

Cotton did not talk with Netanyahu or Ya’alon about why Israel is presently refusing to negotiate with the administration increasing US military aid, he said. He also asserted that during their meeting, Netanyahu “didn’t express an opinion internal American legislative politics.”

Cotton disputed the widespread notion that Jerusalem’s bitter opposition to the deal might seriously harm bilateral ties. “The US-Israel relationship is much stronger and based on a much broader foundation than any single president or any single prime minister.”

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