Tom Cotton Goes All-In on Failed Neo-Con Policies

Yesterday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said, we should “cease all appeasement, conciliation, and concessions toward Iran, starting with these sham nuclear negotiations.”

He insisted on a return to neo-conservative policies when handling Iran, while speaking at the Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Conservative Policy Summit.

I guess he forgot where that policy got us. Just over a year ago, in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “In 2003, my friend, Iran had 164 centrifuges: Now they have 19,000. You know what Zarif said to me? ‘You know what your sanctions have gotten you? 19,000′”

Yes, the same policy Sen. Cotton, barely a month into his first term in Senate, is backing has been tried before. And it actually put us in a worse position. Sanctions and isolation took us from a little over a 150 centrifuges to 19,000. Those centrifuges were spinning and enriching to levels well above the current 5%–a level both sides agreed to in the Joint Plan of Action in 2013.

Also included in the JPA are enhanced inspections of enrichment facilities and other nuclear sites by the IAEA. Prior to the JPA, while we refused to engage Iran in earnest, inspections were not as extensive or invasive. Since the JPA has been signed, daily inspections of enrichment facilities and other sites take place.

But Sen. Cotton’s approach would eliminate that–even though he does call for more rigorous inspections, there’d be little chance Iran would allow them if negotiations are called off. He’s essentially advocating to reduce our capabilities to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.

To be clear, IAEA inspection teams still do not have access to Parchin–a military site. There are many questions about past activities there and rightly so. But while an attempt to sneak out at Parchin–or any other covert site–may not be caught initially, the enhanced inspections would likely catch any attempt with sufficient time to respond. Again, Sen. Cotton’s policy would eliminate enhanced inspections, thus making it more difficult to catch any attempted breakout–overt or covert. (I discuss breakout capabilities in more detail, below.)

Sen. Cotton concludes his rant with an unverified charge that President Obama and the Iranian government have some secret pact, “what started as an unwise policy has now descended into a dangerous farce. One can only suspect an unspoken entente between the Obama administration and Iran: the U.S. won’t impose new sanctions on Iran and will allow it to develop threshold nuclear capabilities, while Iran won’t assemble a bomb till 2017.”

The freshman Senator from Arkansas, the same guy that wanted to include a “Corruption of Blood” provision in a House sanctions bill being debated in May 2013, continues to show his total ignorance when it comes to Iran policy. Nevermind that his “Corruption of Blood” provisions was grossly unconstitutional, the idea that somehow given these negotiations Iran could now be able to develop threshold nuclear capabilities is gratuitous at best.

As Paul Pillar puts it, “In short, breakout is a scary fantasy, but no more than that. It is a badly flawed standard for formulating a negotiating position or for evaluating a deal with Iran.”

He explains that any agreement would entail a longer breakout time. Of course, without an agreement, that time would be shortened. And a longer breakout time has already been guaranteed, since Iran has a) capped its enrichment level at 5% and b) diluted and/or converted its 20% stockpile in July.

But that really doesn’t matter. The current agreement–as I said above–also calls for enhanced inspections, which would detect any attempted breakouts. This really wouldn’t matter, as well, since an attempted break out would be followed by a heavy response by the US and its allies well before the breakout is completed.

The biggest reason, however, is that with an agreement Iran wouldn’t have the incentive to attempt a breakout. As I said above, we’d find out relatively quickly–thanks to enhanced inspections–and the response would likely be heavy handed ranging from military strikes to even more draconian sanctions. With no incentive to stay on track, which is what would happen if negotiations are scuttled like Sen. Cotton wants, Iran would be more willing to cheat like they did previously–expanding from 164 centrifuges in 2003 to 19,000 in 2013.

Without an agreement, anything can happen. By reaching a settlement we limit the possible outcomes and can control the playing field.

But by calling for an end to negotiations and the passing of increasingly draconian sanctions on Iran, one thing is clear. Sen. Cotton has very publically embraced a neo-conservative vision. Which is ironic, since, as a veteran of neo-con follies in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, he should be well aware of the costs of such an embrace–or maybe he just doesn’t care.

One comment

  1. Maybe I’m expecting too much but when I read “analysis of the Middle East” I thought of real analysis instead of reflexive repetition of ideological talking points and logical fallacies.
    One such fallacy is that sticking the label neocon to one man’s argument does automatically invalidate the argument itself.
    Your statement that sanctions and isolation put the US in a worse position is just an assumption that has never been proven.
    It does not follow logically that no sanctions and no isolation would have put the US in a better position.
    Indeed, one could make the exact same argument and say: “Despite the fact that murder is illegal and severely punished every year 5000 people are murdered. See where that got us? We are in a worse position now. Let’s make murder legal and get rid of the punishment.”.
    It were not neocon policies that resulted in Iran having 19,000 centrifuges.
    May I remind you that in November 2008, shortly before Mr. Obama’s first inauguration as president, Iran had about 6,000 centrifuges. This means that during Mr. Obama’s presidency Iran amassed more centrifuges than during the presidencies of all his predecessors, Democrats and Republicans, combined.
    May I also remind you that it was Mr. Obama who wanted to engage Iran and offered them an outstretched hand. Remember?
    What was the result? Nothing. They continued merrily enriching and building centrifuges.
    As for the JPA and the current negotiations, they came only after really biting sanctions were introduced in 2012.
    Ironically the only time when Iran really stopped their nuclear program (at least its military component) was when the US had invaded Iraq in 2003 and the Mullahs had reason to believe that they were next.
    Whether the decision to invade Iraq was the right one is a topic for another dicussion but the fact is that even though that this was only a temporary halt this was the only time ever that Iran stopped its nuclear program.
    The current negotiations have resulted in concessions on the part of only one side, the US, and are not going in a direction that would bring us near the desired results.
    That and the fact that the JPA itself came into being through secret negotiations, bypassing America’s lawmakers and America’s allies, makes Mr. Cotton’s suggestions and suspicions look not that unreasonable.
    Of course, there could be an agreement tomorrow even without the threat of sanctions or force.
    One could strike a deal tommorow by essentially giving Iran all they want.
    But would such an agreement achieve its stated goals? The clear answer is NO!
    Iran would become a nuclear threshold state.
    The Mullahs have shown in the past that they are willing to pay a high price in order to get their nukes or the ability to build nukes in short order.
    That’s why they’re OK with the current state of affairs.
    While sanctions have been relieved they have not dismantled one bit of their infrastructure.
    Things like missile development and other important aspects are not even subject to the negotiations while they are allowed to continue development of advanced centrifuges and work on the Arrak reactor.
    As long as they don’t assemble a fully functional reactor in Arrak, everything else can be done in Arrak or outside Arrak.
    Although Iran’s stockpile of 20 % enriched uranium hexafluoride has been reduced, half of it has not been diluted but simply converted into uranium oxide from which it can be converted back in a matter of months unless it has been irradiated. Most of that uranium oxide has not been irradiated yet.
    In any case, even the diluted material can be enriched again faster than before with the new advanced centrifuges that Iran is allowed to develop.
    For accurate analysis and information on the state of the Iranian nuclear program I highly recommend David Albright’s ISIS website.
    David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), is a well-respected expert and has worked with the IAEA.
    Paul Pillar on the other hand is, judging from his articles I’ve read, simply using one-sided rhetoric to push his agenda.
    Despite his impressive credentials his argument is seriously flawed.
    His main point in the article you’ve mentioned is that breakout times don’t matter.
    This fails to take into account that there are other players in the region for whom breakout times DO matter greatly.
    The Saudis who perhaps feel even more threatened than the Israelis by a nuclear Iran have neither the intelligence nor the military capability to prevent an Iranian breakout and are totally dependent on the US to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
    If the breakout time is very short, say two months, the Saudis would need to be absolutely shure that the US can detect the breakout in time and that the US will use military force to stop the Iranians because if the Iranians were to break out they would already have made the decision to accept the diplomatic fallout, sanctions, isolation and whatever other negative consequences there might be and so the only option at that point would be the military option.
    It’s no secret that the Saudis distrust Mr. Obama (for good reasons).
    But even if we set that aside the shorter the breakout times the less likely the Saudis are to make themselves dependent on the current US president or any other US president in this matter of life and death.
    It is reasonable to expect that if Iran were to become a nuclear threshold state the Saudis would arm themselves with nukes or become themselves a nuclear threshold state.
    The same can be expected of other regional players like Turkey.
    More nukes in this already unstable region is a recipe for disaster.
    A shorter breakout time increases the risk of war because if such a breakout were suspected the US would have less time to verify that the information is correct and it could also not employ other nonmilitary means that take longer to work or else it would risk to act too late. A shorter breakout time means increased pressure to strike militarily.
    A shorter breakout time increases the risk that Iran would go nuclear if the US were distracted by a great internal crisis or a great natural disaster that would prevent it from acting in the short term.
    Mr. Pillar’s whole argument hinges on 5 assumptions that are questionable.
    1. The US can detect a breakout in time.
    2. The Mullahs will act reasonable.
    3. There is no incentive for the Mullahs to go nuclear with just one bomb because that’s what they get if they break out.
    4. The number of centrifuges doesn’t matter.
    5. The US would strike militarily, if necessary.

    Assumption #1 is highly questionable.
    That assessment is shared by members of the intelligence community.
    Even the most extensive monitoring arrangements could only monitor facilities that are already known or would be made known by Iran.
    The Mullahs have a long history of cheating and deception and sites like Natanz and Fordow were not known to the world for many months until they were discovered by dissidents or intelligence services.
    It’s possible that there are more unknown undeclared sites. That’s why the breakout time has to be as long as possible.
    Assumption #2 is also questionable. Their whole nuclear program is an unreasonable enterprise and makes neither economic nor scientific sense. The size of the program makes only sense if they want nukes. The fact that they were willing to pay such a high price (billions of dollars lost because of sanctions) shows that they are not reasonable if all they wanted was a peaceful program. It’s a bad joke that Iran, one of the biggest oil exporters, has not enough refining capacities and has to import fuel. Besides, North Korea shows us that we shouldn’t depent too much on their rational behaviour.
    Assumption #3 Here applies the same as with #2 but who says that they can only break out with one bomb?
    That brings us to
    Assumption #4. Again, wrong Mr. Pillar. The number of bombs that they can produce if they break out is only limited by three factors: The amount of uranium available and the number and speed of the centrifuges.
    Iran has enough uranium to produce at least 5 bombs if the uranium would be enriched highly enough.
    They could dilute that uranium to 0.1% and it still wouldn’t matter if they had enough fast centrifuges to enrich the uranium in the shortest possible time.
    And again, who is to say that they would be reasonable and rational.
    Didn’t North Korea chose to be a pariah with a few nukes while the North Koreans were literally starving?
    Assumption #5 is by no means certain, given Mr. Obama’s reluctance to make a clear commitment and given how serious he took his own red line in Syria.
    By the way, would you support a military strike if the Iranians would try to rush to the bomb?
    Mr. Pillar’s and your arguments are all based on way too optimistic assumptions and up to now there is nothing to suggest that these assumptions are justified.
    What is most telling is Mr. Pillar’s nonchalance with which he brushes aside the seriousness of Iran getting one single bomb.
    Basically, what he is telling us is, so what if they get one nuke? What good does them one single nuke?
    This tells us that Mr. Pillar is not serious about preventing Iran from getting nukes.
    Again, he ignores that even one bomb would change the balance in the region drastically.
    Do you seriously believe that the US would nuke Iran if the Mullahs would drop that one bomb on the Saudis?
    I don’t and neither do the Saudis. Don’t take my word for it. The Saudis have already said that they would try also to get nukes if Iran has them. A nuclear arms race is no joke. Even the Egyptians have indicated that they would go nuclear.
    That is a freightening scenario.
    That would be the supreme irony. An arms race caused by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
    Anyway, if the Mullahs would get one single bomb, who would stop them from building more bombs?
    The Mullahs are evil but they are not stupid as they have proven by showing how skillfully they are in using stalling tactics and negotiations and by the way they have developed their nuclear program and I think that they would in advance consider all the negative consequences of building one nuke.
    If they would build one nuke they would have already decided to take all the punishment and that would mean that the only way to stop them at that point would be military force.
    Any military professional can tell you that the decision to attack a country is made much more difficult if they have even one nuke.

    Bottom line: The idea that any deal, no matter how bad, is better than no deal, is simply wrong.
    Mr. Cotton is right. At this moment only two outcomes are possible.
    Either endless negotiations without any results or a bad deal.
    But even a strike on Iran is no longterm solution.
    Again, Mr. Cotton is right. The only longterm solution is regime change.
    As the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union has shown us, regime change does not necessarily mean that you have to invade another country. Regime change can be achieved by other means.
    In the end this is more than just about nukes. It’s about an enemy of us, the Western world, and an enemy of the Iranian people, a people with a great civilization held back by fanatics with a stone age mentality.

    Nov. 19, 2008, 6000 Centrifuges
    http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/ISIS_analysis_Nov-IAEA-Report.pdf

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