Senator Tom Cotton Calls for Decertifying the Iran Deal

October 3, 2017

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile

Thank you all very much, and thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this important conversation about the future of the Iran deal.

That future faces a moment of decision on October 15. I've long advocated for declining to certify the deal to Congress again for many reasons, which I'll explain tonight. But President Trump has put it best himself: "The Iran deal poses a direct national-security threat."

The sensible course, then, is to decline to certify the deal and begin the work of strengthening it and counteracting Iranian aggression, with the threat of sanctions and military action if necessary.

To understand why, let's understand the Iranian threat. It's not the deal's technical flaws, though it has a lot of those. The threat is not the nature of Iran's weapons; it's the nature of Iran's regime.

The ayatollahs are a radical, revolutionary Islamist movement, backed with the powers of a nation-state. And it has always been so. Shortly after taking power, Ayatollah Khomeini created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to fulfill "the ideological mission of jihad in God's way; that is, [to extend] the sovereignty of God's law throughout the world," in the words of Iran's constitution. Suffice it to say, their vision of God's law is not exactly merciful.

The IRGC's shock troops take their mission very seriously. Today, Iran supports and trains Shiite militias and terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bahrain, and Gaza. They build missile factories on Israel's borders. They recruit child soldiers to fight in Syria. They employ secret police to harass and beat students.

And Iran is the most anti-American regime in the world. The ayatollahs have called us "the Great Satan" for 38 years, ever since they invaded our sovereign embassy territory in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for over a year.

And that's not just rhetoric; the ayatollahs' hands are dripping with the blood of American patriots. Hezbollah, the cat's paw of the IRGC, has murdered hundreds of Americans in the bombings of our embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut and of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia. More recently, Iran was responsible for the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of American troops in Iraq, where they supplied Shiite militias with vast arsenals, including devastating roadside bombs.

This is the threat we face: a theocratic tyranny with a deep-seated ideological commitment to wreaking havoc, mayhem, and death against the United States.

There are no mythical moderates in this regime. Even Wendy Sherman, who chiefly negotiated the deal, has since said, "There are hardliners in Iran, and then there are hard-hardliners in Iran." She even characterized the current president, supposed centrist Hassan Rouhani, as "not a moderate, he is a hardliner." It has always been so; if the ayatollahs were to moderate, they would undercut their own self-serving claim to rule.

It's no wonder, then, that this outlaw regime has relentlessly pursued nuclear weapons for a generation. No other weapon is so well-suited for its revolutionary agenda. Nor is it a surprise that the ayatollahs have gone to the greatest lengths to hide their nuclear-weapons program.

Despite belonging to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Khomeini decided as early as 1984 to pursue nuclear weapons. Iran obtained critical support from the A.Q. Khan network, China, and probably Russia throughout the 1980s and 1990s. And, of course, Iran concealed the vast underground enrichment facility near Natanz until dissidents revealed it in 2002. Iran also concealed another underground enrichment facility at Fordow until Western intelligence services exposed it in 2009.

As an aside, I must observe that peaceful, civilian nuclear-power facilities don't tend to be buried underground with several feet of reinforced concrete-or under mountains.

In any event, while Iran periodically engaged in negotiations with Europe and the United States, these talks were nothing but a sham. Don't take my word for it. Iran's chief nuclear negotiator at the time later admitted Iran used the talks simply to buy time. His name was Hassan Rouhani.

This is the regime's history: they hid their nuclear-weapons program, they denied it, and they lied about it. Their religious fanaticism is rivaled only by their duplicity.

But President Obama was willing to overlook Iran's long history of treachery to pursue a nuclear deal at any cost. 

His instinct was always to appease the ayatollahs. When they stole an election in 2009, sparking the Green Movement, he ignored the pleas of innocent protestors as the regime crushed them-a stark contrast, one must add, to his attitude toward our Arab partners during the Arab Spring less than two years later.

And he was never all that enthusiastic about sanctions, either, despite later taking credit for them. In 2009, his State Department lobbied against sanctions on Iran's energy and banking industries and in 2011 his Treasury Department opposed sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran. Congress thankfully passed them anyway.

Along with various U.N. sanctions, these were the toughest sanctions Iran had ever faced and they helped to drive the regime to its knees. And one thing I learned in the Army is that when you have your opponent on his knees, you drive him to the ground and choke him out. But President Obama extended the ayatollahs a hand and helped them up.

So it was that a duplicitous, outlaw regime and a naïve, desperate president combined to produce "the dumbest and most dangerous" deal in American history, as President Trump has rightly called it.

Not that President Obama thought so. He claimed that "every pathway to nuclear weapons is cut off." Hardly. The deal didn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paved the path. It didn't eliminate Iran's nuclear program-the way, for instance, agreements with Libya and South Africa did. In fact, the deal is weaker even than the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, which at least purported to foreclose plutonium reprocessing. And we see how that worked out.

By contrast, the deal in effect endorsed Iran's right to enrich uranium, meaning President Obama granted the ayatollahs a privilege that President Ford denied to the Shah and that President Bush denied to the United Arab Emirates as part of the "123 Agreement" with the Emiratis. As Henry Kissinger and George Schultz have written, "[N]egotiations that began ... as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal [ended] with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years."

Moreover, perhaps the strongest indictment of the deal is that it expires. Actually, it's not the whole deal that expires. Our sanctions don't automatically snap-back in ten years. It's only the restrictions on Iran that begin to disappear.

And when they do, Iran will be closer than ever to a nuclear weapon. Even today, Iran can continue research into advanced centrifuges. In 2025, Iran can begin manufacturing hundreds of advanced centrifuges and start importing dual-use technology without international oversight, preparing the ground for Iran to create an industrial-scale centrifuge-production infrastructure. In 2030, all limits on centrifuge operation and facilities and bans on plutonium reprocessing or separation will expire, as will the limits on Iran's enriched-uranium stockpile. So, by 2030 at the latest, Iran will be able, while fully complying with the deal, to reach nuclear "breakout" in a matter of weeks.

Again, don't just take my word. In 2015, President Obama said, in year 13, 14, and 15 of the deal, the Iranians could "have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero." Further, Iran is simply doing under the deal what would've occurred on a similar research timeline anyway: replacing old, outdated IR-1 centrifuges with IR-6s and IR-8s, which President Rouhani has boasted are "the most modern and advanced [centrifuges] Iran has obtained."

Put simply, this deal only makes sense if you assume, contrary to all experience, that Iran will evolve into a peaceful, law-abiding regime in ten years. To put that differently, it was the Obama administration-not its critics-that based our Iran policy on a fanciful vision of regime change.

And that's also assuming Iran doesn't cheat, a doubtful assumption since the inspection regime under the deal is very weak. Before the deal, we were promised "anywhere, anytime, 24/7 access." But we didn't get that. For instance, the deal gives Iran at least 24 days-and perhaps much longer-to block inspections at a suspected nuclear site, which is significant because important nuclear work can be done on a small scale that would be difficult to detect after a 24-day cleanup.

Also, Iran refuses to grant inspectors access to nuclear-research and military facilities. Just last week, Director Yukiya Amano said the IAEA's "tools are limited" for verifying the prohibition on weaponization. Of course, former Obama administration officials and some members of the P5+1 would just as soon the IAEA not make these requests, lest it provoke a showdown.

Finally, how confident are we that Iran isn't cheating unbeknownst to us? If Iran doesn't have a covert nuclear program today, it would be the first time in a generation. Are we really so sure when a lot of the work could be hidden in a facility the size of a football field, in a country two-and-half-times the size of Texas-and where military bases are off limits? And at what consequence of being wrong?

And while the deal paves Iran's path to the bomb in just a few years, more immediately it has empowered and enabled Iran's revolutionary aggression. Both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, and the Commander of Central Command, General Joe Votel, have testified that Iran has grown more aggressive since the deal was struck. That's not surprising, of course, since it received over $100 billion dollars to fund the IRGC.

Consider the ayatollahs' campaign of imperial aggression. Have they stopped giving rockets to Hezbollah? No, now they're building missile factories in Syria and Lebanon. Their support of Bashar al-Assad has only intensified. Iranian-backed militias continue to destabilize the government in Baghdad. Iran is still supplying anti-ship missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, which threatens the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, just as Iran's menacing activities in the Persian Gulf-such as harassing U.S. Navy vessels and holding our sailors hostage last year-hold that critical sea lane at risk. Iran doesn't use normal statecraft to advance its interests: in country after country, Iran employs loyal sub-state proxies to advance its revolutionary agenda and to construct a vast crescent under its influence.

And then there's the regime's most flagrant provocation: its continued development of ballistic missiles. Since the deal was announced, Iran has tested at least 14 ballistic missiles in a direct affront to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. Unfortunately, that resolution, like the deal itself, is laughably weak, since Iran is merely "called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles"-instead of being outright forbidden. In any case, even these restrictions expire in 2023. And in 2020-barely two years away-the conventional-weapons embargo on Iran expires, and the ayatollahs will be able to buy and sell all manner of weapons-missiles, battle tanks, heavy artillery, attack helicopters.

Against this aggression, what tools did the deal give us? Only the threat of snap-back sanctions-after Iran has already received its end of the bargain. But when that's the only enforcement measure, it's like the death penalty being the only sentence for all crimes, from jaywalking to murder. The West is too afraid to pull the trigger, and as a result, the Iranian regime gets away with everything short of murder-and many times murder itself.

After two years of living under this terrible deal, the question before us is, what now? To that I quote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: fix it or nix it.

President Trump is free to insist upon revision of the deal, under threat of withdrawal and re-imposed sanctions, because President Obama refused to submit the deal to the Senate as a treaty. Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time that ratifying a treaty was "impossible"-which was odd, since he was the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee when the Senate ratified New START in 2010. What they really meant was the Iran deal was too weak and hence unpopular, so it couldn't be ratified.

I wrote a letter to the ayatollahs at the time, joined by 46 colleagues, cautioning them that the next president or Congress could alter or unwind any deal that wasn't a treaty. They foolishly didn't heed our warning. They should have.

As a result of President Obama's refusal to submit the deal as a treaty, and the ayatollahs' failure to insist upon it-as Vladimir Putin did for New START-Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. I was the lone vote against that bill because a nuclear agreement-especially with an outlaw regime like Iran-should be submitted as a treaty and obtain a two-thirds vote in the Senate.

But the law includes other, helpful measures of accountability, most notably for our purposes the requirement that the president certify to Congress every 90 days not only Iran's compliance with the deal, but more importantly, whether the deal remains in the "vital national-security interests of the United States."

In April and July, President Trump made this certification, mostly because the administration was still reviewing our Iran policy. But the time for reviewing Iran policy is over; the time for choosing is here. The president should decline to certify, not primarily on grounds related to Iran's technical compliance, but rather based on the long catalogue of the regime's crimes and perfidy against the United States, as well as the deal's inherent weakness. The deal and the status quo are most certainly not in our "vital national-security interests."

This course of action has the simple virtue of being true. A one-sided, temporary agreement that enables Iran's campaign of imperial aggression and that ends with the United States making Iran a legitimate and lawful nuclear power is manifestly not in our interest. A routine series of half-hearted certifications won't make it so.

And speaking the truth would also signal to Congress, to our allies, and to Iran that the new president won't repeat the last president's mistakes, but instead intends to confront the Iranian threat. Better to have no deal at all than one that compromises our security, emboldens Iran, and encourages nuclear proliferation across the Middle East.

The world needs to know we're serious, we're willing to walk away, and we're willing to re-impose sanctions-and a lot more than that. And they'll know that when the president declines to certify the deal, and not before.

Let me reiterate, though, that this certification occurs under U.S. law-not the deal itself. The decision not to certify doesn't withdraw us from the deal immediately. Rather, it gives Congress a 60-day window to do quickly what we've always had the power to do: re-impose sanctions.

But instead of that backward-looking step-which the president also has in his power to do now-let me suggest that we look to the future and a new approach that does what President Obama should have: verifiably halt Iran's nuclear program and deny Iran the ability to race toward nuclear breakout. That's a deal that could've been ratified as a treaty two years ago. 

Congress and the president, working together, should lay out how the deal must change and, if it doesn't, the consequences Iran will face. These conditions are pretty obvious from the deal's inherent flaws.

First and foremost, eliminate the sunset clauses. These absurd clauses are unprecedented in nuclear-non-proliferation efforts and simply reflect President Obama's desperation for any deal, no matter how weak. And we should seek stiffer limits on centrifuge research and development. Iran has no need for an industrial-sized program absent an intent to develop nuclear weapons. If its program is peaceful, Iran can simply buy its nuclear fuel abroad, as so many other countries do.

Second, fortify the deal's Swiss-cheese inspection regime. The IAEA has stated there are gray areas regarding its authority to verify Iran's compliance. There's no room for gray area here-Iran's obligations must be spelled out in black and white.

Third, restrict Iran's ballistic-missile and cruise-missile programs. There is no reason Iran needs better and better, longer- and longer-range missiles except to deliver a nuclear warhead. Their missile program alone warns us that they continue to seek nuclear weapons.

If the political branches can work on a bipartisan basis, on the parts of the deal we all know are flawed, we will have the strong and unified front between Democrats and Republicans, and between Congress and the president, that the Iran deal never enjoyed.

That unity will help the president forge a unified position with our allies-not only the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, but also Israel and our Arab allies. Then it will be Russia and China who must choose between a stronger deal and being isolated and in league with the ayatollahs.

Meanwhile, the United States will have newfound freedom of action to confront Iran for supporting terrorism, destabilizing the Middle East, and abusing their own people, because we will no longer be viewed as chumps trying desperately to hang onto a one-sided nuclear deal, sacrificing other vital interests in the region. It's imperative that we pursue this kind of overarching Iran strategy-and stop seeing Iran simply through the lens of the nuclear deal.

Now, I know that some people oppose this course of action or think it's impossible or view the deal as part of their legacy. But I don't think their objections hold up under scrutiny.

Lately, we've heard some people say that questioning the Iran deal will signal to North Korea that the United States can't be trusted. Well, didn't I warn the ayatollahs that this deal might not survive if it wasn't a treaty? I think I did. But, really, as if North Korea ever needs a pretext to break its commitments. If anything, certifying the disastrous deal with Iran will show the North Koreans that we lack the will to confront them. Speaking of that, isn't it curious that North Korea's nuclear and missile tests have accelerated so rapidly since we agreed to the Iran deal?

Other critics have said our allies will never go along with this course of action. I wouldn't be so sure. After all, it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who pulled President Obama toward stronger sanctions on Iran. The new president, Emmanuel Macron, has acknowledged the very weaknesses of the Iran deal I've outlined here, while urging President Trump to preserve it or propose an alternative. Well, that's exactly what we would propose to our European partners. And I know that Israel and our Arab allies will stand with us; if anything, they'd prefer immediate snap-back sanctions. 

Now, others ask, "Why not wait until the agreement expires so we can deal with more immediate threats now, like North Korea?" To that, let me say a few points. First, it's precisely because we waited so long to address the North Korean problem that today we have so few good options there. Second, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a far more dangerous threat than North Korea. Third, if the ayatollahs will arm Houthi rebels to attack Saudi cities today, if they'll build missile factories for Hezbollah today, if they'll back the brutal Assad regime today, imagine what they'll do under the cover of a nuclear deterrent.

And fourth, now is the time to act, before Western corporations become more deeply entrenched in Iran's economy and create a pro-Iran domestic lobby. In every way, delay strengthens Iran's hand, which is usually the case with weaker, but aggressive nations.

Still others object that Iran has already pocketed the sanctions relief, so if we leave the deal, they'll keep the money and race to nuclear breakout. This, of course, is one reason why the deal was so bad. But I don't propose leaving the deal yet; I propose taking the steps necessary to obtain leverage to get a better deal. Besides, Iran has its own reasons to preserve the deal for now.

Yet if the ayatollahs do quit the deal, let them bear the consequences. President Trump can immediately re-impose all sanctions under U.S. law and U.N. Security Council resolutions. We can go further and impose a de facto global embargo: oil exports, foreign-currency accounts, insurance across all industries, and access to SWIFT and other foreign financial institutions, among other things. Those embargo-like conditions will likely create economic chaos and destabilize the regime before its estimated 12-month breakout. And, if not, it will at least buy time for more devastating military action.

Which leads to a final objection: there's no military option against Iran. Those who say this seem to believe we have only two choices: capitulation under the deal or years-long occupation after forcible regime change. Of course that's not the case.

We always have the option of calibrated strikes like President Trump ordered against Syria earlier this year-indeed, we've used them to good effect with Iran itself. There was Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, when we destroyed or damaged half of Iran's operational navy to retaliate for their mining the Persian Gulf. There was Operation Desert Fox in 1998, a four-day operation against Iraq, which also startled the ayatollahs. And it's worth remembering Iran didn't offer to suspend uranium enrichment until 2003, when we invaded Iraq. Throughout their history, the ayatollahs have consistently yielded to credible military threats. 

And while the credible threat of military action may be all that's needed to change the regime's behavior, let there be no doubt about this point: if forced to take action, the United States has the ability to totally destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure. And if they choose to rebuild it, we could destroy it again, until they get the picture.

Nor should we hesitate if compelled to take military action. Iran has been attacking us for decades. As I mentioned earlier, Iran killed hundreds and hundreds of our troops in Iraq with uniquely powerful roadside bombs known as explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs. These bombs could penetrate any Army vehicle, even an Abrams tank. I know this, because I was there.

Toward the end of my tour, two new, young soldiers joined our platoon. As we prepared for their first patrol, I reminded them of their training and told them we were a battle-tested unit, so they had little to worry about. They asked about roadside bombs. I told them to trust their armor, that we'd all been blown up before, most of us more than once, and we lived to tell about it. Then they asked about EFPs. I didn't have a reassuring answer. So I just said, let's hope it's not our day to die.

It would be a dereliction of duty to tell the American people the same thing in essence, that we must eventually learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. We can do better. We can do better than this deal. Iran is not ten feet tall, after all, and we still have time to set things right. With new leadership and new resolve, effective diplomacy and a credible military threat, we can defeat Iran's drive for supremacy in the Middle East.

Thank you very much.