WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has tried so very hard to destroy the Iran deal.
First, he ditched the softer rhetoric of the deal's other critics, who said they supported the talks between the U.S., five fellow world powers and Iran but simply didn't trust that the agreement would be strong enough. Cotton made it clear that he wanted to increase sanctions -- taking a step that the Obama administration warned would shatter nuclear diplomacy -- precisely so that he could put the U.S. on a path to causing regime change in Tehran. The end of peaceful negotiations was "a feature, not a bug" of the sanctions proposal, he told an audience at the Heritage Foundation in January.
Then, he decided that his goal was so important he would temporarily shelve his distaste for Iran's rulers so he could directly encourage them to undercut the nuclear talks. Cotton and 46 other Republican senators warned Iran in a March 9 letter that President Barack Obama's successor could undo any agreement he signed on to. (Iran's U.S.-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, promptly explained why such a move would upend precedents that ensure the functioning of the international system and that protect American interests, such as troops based abroad.)
Cotton, a Harvard grad, gets an A for effort. But his campaign ultimately failed: the world powers and Iran reached a deal on July 14, and the nuclear agreement is nearly certain to survive a congressional review period that will end next week. Though Republicans hope to pass a congressional resolution disapproving the deal, they lack the votes to override a guaranteed presidential veto because of the number of Democrats who support the deal.
Cotton knows he has lost this round, so he's preparing for the next one. This time, he's bringing in the big guns -- or, at least, a man who likes guns and sometimes shoots his friends in the face with them. On the first day of the new congressional session, the freshman senator publicly sought advice on Iran from former Vice President Dick Cheney, who views Obama's deal as "an intricately crafted capitulation."
Cheney was headlining an event at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday when Cotton submitted a question from the audience.
"The president has said that he will confront Iran's regional aggression after this deal is implemented," the senator's question began. "What steps should this confrontation include to stop Iran's aggression and reassure Israel and our Sunni partners?"
Strikingly, Cotton's question focused on what the U.S. should do about Iran's support for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, the Islamist Lebanese group Hezbollah and other Shiite actors in the region -- bypassing worries about Iran's nuclear activities and indicating that the senator now sees the nuclear agreement's passage as a fait accompli.
As a member of three Senate panels that manage America's approach to Iran -- the Armed Services, Intelligence and Banking Committees -- Cotton is clearly well-placed to shape policy in the Middle East. And Tehran's actions in the region, notably its support for Shiite militias in Iraq who killed hundreds of American soldiers, its arming of Hezbollah to threaten Israel and its backing of Assad despite the chaos he has unleashed in his country, are clearly major concerns for Washington.
What's less clear is what Cotton hoped to gain from Cheney. The former vice president responded first by scoffing at the proposition of countering a post-deal Iran: "I'll believe it when I see it," Cheney said.
He then offered no proposals for dealing with Iran's regional activities, other than building up the U.S. defense budget -- tacitly reinforcing Cotton's apparent belief that there is no way to handle Tehran other than to threaten it.
"We've got a situation where we badly need to rebuild our military capability," Cheney said, decrying sequestration-related cuts in military spending. "Especially if we're going to be in the business of trying to contain the damage that Iran is going to do with all of the relief that we've given them."
Cotton is already a vocal supporter of boosting the defense budget. And as a veteran, he's also likely aware that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- Cheney's marquee foreign policy moment -- enabled Iran to expand its reach into Baghdad and turn its neighbor into a Shiite-led client state.