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Opinion Tom Cotton: We can bomb Iran’s nuke program back to ‘day zero’

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Senator Tom Cotton has an undeniable talent for injecting himself into foreign policy debates in ways that garner maximum media attention — and deafening accolades from the Conservative Entertainment Complex. He also has an undeniable talent for helping his opponents build support for their case.

As you may recall, Cotton — a rising star on foreign policy in the GOP — sparked a major media controversy when he spearheaded a letter to Iranian leaders that politely “informed” them that a negotiated nuclear deal would not be binding on the next president. Many observers suggested that the provocative nature of Cotton’s move would further polarize the debate and make it politically easier — and more likely — that Democrats would back the deal.

Now Cotton may have done it again, by suggesting that the U.S. military has the capacity to bomb Iran’s nuclear program back to “day zero.”

Per a report in the Times of Israel, Cotton, speaking to Israeli reporters, made the case that the U.S. had not made Iran believe it is willing to use force to deter it from getting a nuke. Cotton said a military campaign against Iran could be aimed exclusively at blocking that from happening:

“You can destroy facilities. 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,” Cotton said. “Can we eliminate it 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.”

Senator Chris Murphy is the first Democrat that I’m aware of to respond at length to Cotton. On the Senate floor today, he said:

“Senator Cotton said this week that we could bomb Iran back to day zero if we took a military route to divorcing Iran from a nuclear weapon. Let’s get back to reality for a second about what a military strike would mean. You can set back Iran’s nuclear program for a series of years, but you cannot bomb Iran back to day zero unless you are also prepared to assassinate everyone in Iran who has worked on the nuclear program. Why? Because you can’t destruct knowledge. You can’t remove entirely from that country the set of facts that got them within two to three months of a nuclear weapon.
“And so I know that members bristle at this notion that the president is suggesting it’s a choice between an agreement or war. But there are members of this body who are openly cheerleading for military engagement with Iran, who are oversimplifying the effect of military action, who are blind to the reality of U.S. military activity in that region over the course of the last 10 to 15 years. This belief in the omnipotent, unfailing power of the U.S. military is simply not based in reality. We could set back the nuclear program for a series of years, but the consequences to the region would be catastrophic.”

Translation: Sorry, but we actually can’t just dial Iran’s nukes back to “day zero” as easily as you turn down your air conditioning.

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This exchange suggests, I think, that proponents of the Iran deal could well seize on Cotton’s remarks, publicly and privately, to persuade Democrats who remain undecided to support the agreement.

As Steve Benen notes, Republicans have worked hard to create the impression that the choice as Obama has framed it — this agreement, or war — is a “false” one. Central to that effort has been the idea that the administration and the other world powers should have negotiated a “tougher” deal, or that a better alternative to the deal would be keeping sanctions in place to force Iran to capitulate later, on better terms for us.

In his speech today, Obama challenged both of those ideas at length on their own merits. But as Steve also notes, Cotton’s remarks help illustrate that some opponents of the deal — for all their criticism of Obama’s “false” choice — may in fact be more inclined to see military action as a viable alternative than many Americans would.

Key moments from President Obama's speech at American University on Aug. 5, addressing the international deal on Iran's nuclear program (Video: AP)

It’s telling that the statements from some Dems who have come out against the deal have not reckoned seriously with the question of what we should do if the deal is blocked and Iran continues down the path towards a nuclear weapon. The statements from Representatives Nita Lowey and Ted Deutch opine that the deal is not tough enough and carries too many risks, without bothering to bring up their preferred alternatives for what’s next.

But Cotton has helpfully clarified — in a back door way — that if the deal gets blocked, that, too, would bring a whole host of unpleasant consequences, including, possibly, war. Hopefully the remaining undecided Democrats will pay attention to the wisdom of the good Senator from Arkansas.