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.