Iran Nuclear Dispute Triggers Saber Rattling on Both Sides
Policy + Politics

Iran Nuclear Dispute Triggers Saber Rattling on Both Sides

REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

The debate over the Iran nuclear deal doesn’t formally begin until September, but the public already is being treated to extraordinary saber rattling and scare tactics from both sides of the controversy.

President Obama and John Kerry warn that if the deal fails, Iran would win on both counts—they’d have trade and support from the U.N. and the other 5 countries, and they’d still develop a nuclear bomb, which would mean war.

Some Republicans are so convinced that the deal that the U.S. and five other major powers negotiated with Iran to curb Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapon in return for sanction relief is so bad for this country and Israel that they are already entertaining fantasies of military action against Iran if the deal falls apart.

Related: Obama defends Iran nuclear deal as U.S. diplomacy over war

Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an Army combat veteran of the Middle East conflict and arguably the single most vocal Republican opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, suggested this week to a group of Israeli journalists that the U.S. military has the capability of bombing Iran’s nuclear program “back to zero.”

According to a report in the Times of Israel, Cotton argued that Secretary of State John Kerry and other administration officials had not been adamant enough in convincing Iran that the U.S. was willing to use force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear warhead.

“You can destroy facilities,” Cotton said, according to the report. “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. Can we eliminate it forever? No, because any advanced industrialized country can develop nuclear weapons in four to seven years, from zero.”

Cotton, an articulate Harvard educated politician with real GOP star-power, fomented Republican opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran months before the final version emerged from round the clock talks in Vienna last month. 

Related: The 8 Most Important Things to Know About the Iran Nuclear Deal

In March, Cotton authored a letter to Iranian leaders signed by him and 46 other Republican senators warning that any nuclear agreement without legislative approval could be reversed by the next president “with the stroke of a pen.”

Cotton defied Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) and other Republican leaders by casting the lone vote against a bipartisan legislative agreement with the White House providing for congressional review and a vote on the final terms of the agreement, arguing that it would provide Obama with an advantage in overcoming congressional resistance.

Then in April, he engaged Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in dueling tweets, including one in which he accused Zarif of cowardice for hiding in the U.S., as a young man to avoid service in the bloody Iran-Iraq war.

Related: Senate OKs Oversight of Iran Nuke Deal, Leaving Cotton in the Dust

Now with Cotton’s loose talk about a military solution to preventing Iran from getting its hand on the bomb if the U.S.-Iran nuclear non-proliferation agreement collapses, supporters of the agreement can use Cotton’s comments to persuade recalcitrant congressional Democrats to sign off on the agreement.

“Let’s get back to reality for a second about what a military strike would mean,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “You can set back Iran’s nuclear program for a series of years, but you cannot bomb Iran back to day zero unless you are also prepared to assassinate everyone in Iran who has worked on the nuclear program. Why? Because you can’t destruct knowledge.”

Indeed, President George W. Bush’s administration concluded long ago that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear plants would be a serious mistake and would only make it more difficult to prevent Iran from eventually developing a nuclear weapon that would threat Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East.

Former CIA director and National Security Agency chief Gen. Michael Hayden told a group of experts and reporters that attacking Iran would push Iran to spare no effort to build a nuclear weapon in secret.

Related: Schumer Bucks Obama, Gives GOP Iran Plan a Green Light

Hayden told the group that without an actual occupation of Iran, which nobody wants to contemplate, the Bush administration concluded that a limited military campaign in Iran would be counter-productive.

Obama and his senior advisers in some way are complicit in this dangerous renewed speculation on the prospects for military action if a negotiated settlement over the future of Iran’s nuclear program falls through. Cotton and other Republican opponents complain that the administration conceded too much to the Iranians and that the agreement is porous and difficult to enforce.

During his nearly hour-long speech delivered at American University on Wednesday, Obama derided most of the agreement’s critics, especially those who have insisted that the U.S. should hold out for a “better” deal. He accused them of “selling a fantasy.” 

Yet Obama, Kerry and other administration officials in some ways have been inviting dangerous speculation about the prospects of war in the Middle East if the negotiations collapsed or were rejected by Congress or the Iranian government. And the president did that again yesterday during his lengthy defense of the agreement.

“Now because more sanctions won't produce the results that the critics want, we have to be honest,” he said. “Congressional rejection of this deal leaves any U.S. administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option, another war in the Middle East. I say this not to be provocative, I am stating a fact. Without this deal, Iran will be in a position, however tough our rhetoric may be, to steadily advance its capabilities.

“So let's not mince words,” he added. “The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”