Tom Cotton is the most outspoken champion for bombing Iran in a Senate filled with Republican hawks. And he’s got President Donald Trump’s ear on it, too.
The Arkansas Republican has spoken to several high-ranking U.S. officials and the president himself about the rising tensions with Iran after the U.S. blamed the Islamic Republic for attacking two oil tankers. He declined to describe those conversations beyond saying that he and Trump “discussed the threat that Iran poses to the United States and its partners.”
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But in an interview in his Capitol office on Tuesday, he offered a hard-line case for the president to take action now and not wait, as some of his GOP colleagues are advocating.
“There are more than ample targets that can deter Iran from this kind of malicious behavior whether it’s naval bases or munition storage or refining capabilities,” Cotton said.
His goal? “To inflict enough pain on Tehran that they realize that we’re not going to tolerate these kind of attacks on the high seas.”
Cotton’s eyebrow-raising advocacy campaign comes after several months of lying low in the Senate after a stinging defeat on criminal justice reform and a series of instances in which he broke with Trump, typically a close ally. Cotton voted against the president’s immigration plan to reopen the government and opposed lifting sanctions on Russian companies. He also panned the administration’s plan to bring in more guest workers.
Cotton says he’ll be his own senator despite his alliance with Trump, and he often preserves his political capital for key moments like this one when the president is on the edge of a major decision. On Monday, Trump signaled his resistance to a new Middle East conflict, telling Time magazine that Iran’s attacks have been “minor” and he “wouldn’t say” he’s gearing up for military action.
“I tend to agree with the president a lot more than I did with the last one. And when I don’t, I’ll try to change his mind on numerous occasions, most unknown publicly,” Cotton said. “But if I can’t, then I’ll vote in what I think is the best interest of Arkansas and the nation.”
Cotton first made his suggestion to immediately attack Iran on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, an assertion that put Cotton on the leading edge of the GOP’s hawkish wing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the intelligence makes clear Iran is responsible for damaging tankers in the Gulf of Oman, behavior Cotton argues will escalate for months if not years if the United States lets it slide.
In interviews Tuesday, several Republican senators itching for a more aggressive approach to Iran said they sympathize with Cotton but can’t explicitly endorse military action. Some say it’s too aggressive, some say it’s not Congress’ job to make such suggestions and others worry the president lacks the legal authority to attack another sovereign nation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is also close to Trump and a vocal foreign policy interventionist, suggested that the United States should threaten to destroy oil refineries but not act without further provocation.
Trump is “dead set against Iran’s behavior, that you can’t be intimidated,” said Graham, who added that Trump is not ruling anything out in private conversations. Graham played golf with Trump over the weekend.
“Sen. Cotton’s probably right, but being the moderate guy I am, I would put them on notice,” Graham added.
Cotton disagrees. And to hear him tell it, there’s little risk in launching what he calls a “retaliatory strike” in reaction to two recent tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman: “Whatever Iran thinks they can do to the United States or our security partners in the region we can do tenfold to them. One hundredfold to them.”
“We should be doing all we can to avoid confrontation with Iran. Now, if they are striking American personnel, then that’s another story. But so far, we haven’t seen that,” responded Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), another national security hawk. “It’s premature. I don’t believe the [authorization] that we have right now covers Iran.”
But Cotton’s aggressive line on Iran is a return to form.
His first months as a senator in 2015 were defined by his campaign against President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, beginning with a letter signed by most Republican senators warning the next president could withdraw from any agreement. Then Cotton played a leading role in Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, which some have blamed for exacerbating the tensions with Iran.
Now, the 42-year-old senator says the United States should drop the diplomacy and attack, citing President Ronald Reagan’s strike on Iran’s navy more than 30 years ago.
Using his staccato twang to go against the party line is nothing new: Cotton helped sink Paul Ryan’s border adjustment tax, savaged the House GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill and led an ultimately unsuccessful effort to thwart the criminal justice reform bill championed by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
These pushes have often put him at odds with his GOP colleagues. And on Iran, Cotton asserted that he’s not alone despite reservations from fellow Republicans about calling the military’s shots in the halls of the Senate.
“More Republicans, even if they haven’t spoken out in public, believe it’s time to take a firmer hand toward Iran given the outrages they’ve perpetrated over the last month or so,” Cotton said.
It’s certainly true that Republicans in the Senate are broadly pushing for a more aggressive stance toward Iran. But Cotton’s position is currently a lonely one in the party, and some Republicans seem almost apologetic they can’t endorse it.
“That’s a military decision that I would leave to commanders,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “You can make a compelling argument for what he’s saying that what they’ve already done reaches the basis for retaliation. He may be right.”
“Cotton is right on. They’re the enemy,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. Regarding military strikes, however, he added: “I’m just not going to say that’s my idea, too.”
What’s helped embolden Cotton is that Iran is his signature issue. One of the youngest senators, Cotton also served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps giving his military arguments more sway with his colleagues and the president.
But Cotton is not advocating for a return to a ground war or a sustained air campaign to produce regime change, like that of Obama in Libya. Instead he wants “exactly the kind of action that President Reagan took against Tehran in 1988,” when the United States launched an attack on Iran’s navy after an Iranian mine damaged a U.S. ship.
Cotton added that the military is ready when Trump is: “It’s fair to say that our military is always prepared on the commander in chief’s directives. And part of the job of our senior commanders is to ensure our commander in chief has multiple courses of action to keep the country safe.”