President Trump, shown alongside Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), speaks at the White House in Washington in August. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is lurking behind many bad ideas and irresponsible impulses that motivate the Trump administration. Whether it is attempting (in league with White House anti-immigrant zealot Stephen Miller) to wreck a deal to fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program or to play defense for President Trump on Russia, Cotton seems to be trying both to insinuate himself into the White House’s good graces and to present himself as the most Trumpian senator, setting himself up as the heir to Trump. His malignant influence is nowhere more apparent — or more dangerous — than on Iran.

The scheme to decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a bluff to get Iran to renegotiate the deal assumes that Congress will not reactivate sanctions. But this is factually and logically misleading. Trump — not just Congress — will then have the latitude to reimpose sanctions, thereby violating the JCPOA and isolating the United States from its allies. As Lawfare notes:

Sanctions could be reinstated in several ways. Congress could introduce legislation to reimpose sanctions within 60 days of the deadline for certification. Such legislation would be entitled to INARA’s expedited consideration procedures. Alternatively, the president could decline to exercise the waivers that have suspended the implementation of sanctions legislation thus far. The president could also reinstate designations of Iranian persons and entities as Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) pursuant to executive order. Such designations would also trigger secondary sanctions like those provided for in the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, a law that restricts the access of third-country financial institutions with ties to Iran-related SDNs to the U.S. market. Finally, the United States could move to reimpose U.N. sanctions by triggering the “snapback” mechanism agreed upon in the JCPOA (more on that here). So far, the administration has not indicated that it intends to take any of those steps to unilaterally reimpose sanctions. …

The president does not really need Congress in order to reinstate sanctions that were lifted in the framework of the nuclear deal. He can do so by exercising authorities that he already has through waivers or executive orders.

Cotton should at least acknowledge that he is encouraging Trump — whose mental instability and unhinged temperament make him unfit to serve and who is widely believed to require constant supervision to avoid calamities — to cast the United States in the role of international pariah. Cotton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Kenneth Pollack and Bilal Saab are the latest hawkish foreign policy experts to step forward with a safe and arguably more effective strategy. They write: “In the case of Iran and its role in the region, Washington’s principal goal should be to see Tehran meaningfully and durably change its behavior without the need to engage in open war, which most probably would upend regional stability and entail exorbitant costs for the United States.” That does not require violation of or threatened withdrawal from the JCPOA. Rather, it requires a comprehensive Iran strategy, which the authors dub “pushback”:

In particular, Iran’s endless, indefensible human rights violations furnish both a moral imperative and excellent method of exerting additional financial and political pressure on Tehran. The Iranian regime is highly sensitive to internal protest, believing (rightly) that a great many of its own people would like to see it gone. . . . Making a greater effort to mobilize international support to hold Iran accountable for these abuses, and forcing it to pay a price if it won’t, would put Tehran on the defensive, force it to expend resources at home rather than abroad, and potentially deny it access to overseas markets.

Pushback would certainly mean bolstering American partners under pressure from Iran, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—although that should take the form of enabling a range of reforms more than anything else. It likely would entail taking a more active role in the civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and possibly Yemen to ensure that Iran’s allies do not prevail, and hopefully engineer a stable end to those conflicts that would allow the countries to rebuild. … In the diplomatic realm, it could mean opposing Iranian participation in international organizations, hindering Tehran from negotiating deals favorable to itself with other countries, and making it a priority to prevent Iran from achieving its goals whenever possible.

The idea would be to enhance pressure on Iran and isolate the regime. That, they explain, would not require exiting or threatening to exit the JCPOA. It would, however, mean an end to avoiding strong containment measures out of fear of “losing” the JCPOA:

Pushback does not necessarily threaten the nuclear deal with Iran: the Iranians have demonstrated that they see such an agreement as unrelated to their regional activities. Since the signing of the JCPOA, Iran has amped up its support to its proxies in Yemen, willingly fighting GCC regular forces there. It has also expanded its own direct participation in the Syrian civil war, where its regular forces are now fighting the GCC’s proxies. Nor is there any sign that Iran is limiting its activities in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, or anywhere else out of deference to American interests and a desire to avoid confrontations with Washington. Instead, Tehran has pursued its preferred regional strategy aggressively and without fear that doing so would jeopardize the JCPOA. There is no reason that the United States could not do the same.

Other Middle East experts agree that it’s a mistake to undo the JCPOA and make it the focus of our Iran strategy. “It should be derivative of the broader strategy,” says Dennis Ross. “Because the international community and the [International Atomic Energy Agency] say that the Iranians are fulfilling their obligations under the JCPOA, if the president now acts to re-impose sanctions and walks away from the deal, he will, for sure, leave us isolated and not the Iranians.” He adds: “If the  administration wants to take advantage of the reality that the Europeans, in particular, want us to stay in the JCPOA, it needs to show it will not precipitously walk away from it. Following that logic, the president should also ask Congress not to re-impose sanctions at this time.”

On Capitol Hill, there was no more fervent Democratic critic of the Iran deal than the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), who, as we did, saw significant flaws in the JCPOA (i.e. the sunset clause, failure to include restrictions on Iran’s missile program). Nevertheless, he (as we do) says a tougher Iran policy does not and should not entail ending the JCPOA:

Although I voted against the agreement and continue to believe that it has serious flaws, at this point it would be a mistake to not certify Iran’s compliance and withdraw from the agreement absent solid evidence that Tehran is cheating on the deal. Instead, the administration should strictly enforce the agreement, push back on Iran’s behavior outside of the agreement, and work with our allies to extend the life of the agreement.

In sum, giving Trump more latitude to rattle his saber, renege on international deals and court confrontation with our allies is wholly irresponsible. Members of Congress who understand this should move swiftly to counteract Cotton’s irresponsible antics, urge Trump to use other levers to force a change in Iran’s actions and be ready to sanction Iran for its non-nuclear behavior.