Why does Sen. Tom Cotton hate the Iran deal so much?

Tom Cotton, the freshman Republican senator from Arkansas, has already made a name for himself by stirring the pot on Iran. That worries some folks, but it also points to what motivates one of the Senate's rising stars.

Danny Johnston/AP/File
Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas (seen here as a representative in 2014) speaks in Jonesboro, Ark. The man leading the effort to torpedo an agreement with Iran is a rookie Republican senator and an Army veteran with a Harvard law degree and a record of tough rhetoric against President Obama’s foreign policy.

Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is quickly becoming the next in a growing line of young Republican provocateurs.

Take last Thursday, when Senator Cotton – one of John McCain’s fledgling security hawks – engaged in another high-profile attack on the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Targeting the carefully constructed bipartisan bill that would guarantee congressional review of any Iran nuclear deal, the senator used a rare parliamentary maneuver that, he said, was intended to strengthen the bill. Opponents said the true goal was to kill the bill, which has veto-proof support in the Senate.

Just the day before, Cotton had fired off a series of provocative tweets to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, challenging him to debate the United States Constitution and “Iran’s record of tyranny, treachery, & terror” and criticizing Mr. Zarif's "cowardly character." The foreign minister tweeted back, deflecting Cotton's "macho character smear" and congratulating him on his newborn son.

But it was in March when Cotton effectively announced his arrival as a player in Washington by writing an unusual warning letter about the nuclear talks that was directly addressed to the Iranian government. He personally lobbied his fellow GOP senators and got 46 of them to sign on.

How does Senator McCain (R) of Arizona think his protégé is doing so far, just four months on the job?

“Fine,” he smiles, when questioned in the marbled hallway outside his office last week.

Not a bit brash for a freshman?

“I’m not sure I can throw stones.”

“Maverick” McCain is obviously pleased with Cotton, who is one of three freshman Republican senators McCain is grooming as the chamber’s next generation of national security experts. (The other two are Sens. Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Joni Ernst of Iowa).

All three serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which McCain chairs, and are also military veterans. But Cotton is the one who has emerged as the most authoritative and outspoken, shattering sedate Senate sensibilities as he slams the president’s foreign policy, particularly on Iran.

The youngest member of the Senate, Cotton is either shocking – or thrilling – with his dive bombs at international negotiations to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. Democrats in and outside of the administration lambasted his March letter for undermining the president’s negotiating authority and US foreign policy. Seven of the Senate’s Republicans pointedly did not sign the letter.

Cotton admits he wants this “bad deal” to fail. To some, that makes him a harmful and destructive force. 

“My bias is very clearly toward constructive action, and better still, when it comes to dealing with an adversary, bipartisan action,” says former Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who once chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now heads the Lugar Center in Washington. A unanimous vote in committee “makes an impression on a nation,” he says, referring to the 19 to 0 committee approval of the bipartisan Iran bill that Cotton and others have been trying to target with “poison pill” amendments that would kill it. (Cotton calls them “vitamin pills.”)

Senator Lugar says Cotton’s foreign and national security policy background is “not as broad as it needs to be” and is dismayed by his “almost solo effort” to change US foreign policy in a major way.

But it is precisely Cotton’s background and forcefulness that impress Republicans such as McCain. He and others encouraged Cotton – who has tours in Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt – to run for the Senate after one term in the House. With tea party and establishment GOP backing, and by relentlessly equating his opponent with Mr. Obama, Cotton blew the socks off Democrat incumbent Mark Pryor in November.

McCain readily lists the strengths of this ideologically rigid conservative: “His intelligence and his background and his willingness to take on tough issues.”

All three aspects are key to understanding a man of unswerving discipline, who, when he was running for Senate, was so focused on the race that he engaged in almost no socializing, “not even when he would be walking through the hallways” of Congress, says Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina, who served with Cotton on the House Foreign Relations Committee.

The tall, lanky veteran grew up on an Arkansas cattle farm, the son of Democrats. But in high school, President Clinton’s tax policies and “cutting and running” after the battle of Mogadishu turned him into a conservative, according to a September 2014 profile in the Atlantic.

As an undergrad, he was one of two rural Arkansans to arrive at Harvard College in 1995. He finished in three years, writing his senior thesis on the Federalist Papers and extolling the authors’ conclusion that “ambition” sets apart those who seek national office from those who don’t. He eventually went on to graduate from Harvard Law School.

His friend, Congressman Wilson, describes him as prepared, thoughtful, a careful listener, and someone who “participates in a positive manner.” Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California echoes that, calling him “Mr. Positive Attitude,” a can-do type who “is not going to sit there and see what happens.”  

Cotton has clerked for a federal judge, worked for two Washington law firms, and served for nearly five years as an Army infantry officer – first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team.  Despite deployment in Iraq in 2006 – the worst year – he has praised the war as “just and noble” and criticized Obama for not leaving behind a residual force.

“I think that George Bush largely did have it right, that we can’t wait for dangers to gather on the horizon, that we can't let the world's most dangerous people get the world's most dangerous weapons,” Cotton told Politico in 2013.

That’s the view he has toward Iran, stating that it’s not possible to trust Tehran in a nuclear negotiation as long as the ayatollahs are in power.  “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,” he told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg last month.

Cotton lambastes the framework agreement announced April 2 as a “list of concessions” – not by Iran, but by the US. 

Despite administration assurances that the once-covert Fordow nuclear facility will not be used to enrich uranium, he says it should be shut down completely, and he wants Iran to reveal its nuclear program’s past military dimensions. Inspections must be anytime, anywhere – something still under discussion with Iran as international negotiators face a June 30 deadline. He’s hardly alone in these positions, which he wrapped into his proposed amendment to the Senate Iran bill.

Cotton argues that the US has lost its military credibility, and thus, its leverage with Iran. He discussed with Mr. Goldberg the possibility of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, pointing to past limited actions that caused Iran to “pull in its horns to some degree.”

Today's ill-conceived negotiations with Iran are part of Obama’s overall failed foreign policy, its “experiment with retreat,” as Cotton put it in his maiden speech on the Senate floor in March.

“American weakness and leading from behind have produced nothing but a more dangerous world,” he said, citing the rise of the Islamic State and a more aggressive Russia, China, and Iran. He proposed increasing defense spending far beyond what the new GOP budget envisions.

As for Cotton’s latest charge up Capitol Hill, it's expected to fail. If Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky wants to save the Iran bill from losing its veto-proof support, he may have no choice but to proceed with a vote on the bill, rather than allowing a vote on Cotton’s forced poison-pill amendment and one by Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, which would make a deal contingent on Iran’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

But this would certainly not be Cotton’s last charge, and some Republicans hope he'll set his sights on the White House someday. At the very least, he'll have no problem with ambition.

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