Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is applauded at his election watch party in North Little Rock, Ark., Nov. 4, 2014.

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is applauded at his election watch party in North Little Rock, Ark., Nov. 4, 2014. Danny Johnston/AP

Tom Cotton: Obama's Iran Deal May Lead to Nuclear War

The hawkish junior senator discusses the 'moderate' turn in his national security thinking, and why he thinks bombing Iran should be a viable option for the U.S.

Tom Cotton strikes me as the most interesting Senate freshman for any number of reasons, not least of which is his uncanny ability to draw attention to himself, most notably when he convinced 46 of his Republican colleagues to sign an open letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In the letter, Cotton, the extremely junior senator from Arkansas—he's the youngest member of the Senate, at 37—and his co-signers warned Khamenei that Congress might use its power to overturn or, at the very least, modify whatever agreement the Iranian regime eventually chooses to sign with President Obama and his great-power allies.

The letter made Cotton a hero among those who believe, as he told me in an interview last week, that Obama's deal is not a deal at all, but instead simply a "list of concessions." To his critics, Cotton's decision to argue publicly to a longstanding American adversary that the U.S. president's word is not binding was semi-mutinous or, at a minimum, despicable.

I went to speak to Cotton not only because his letter interested me, but because he is quite obviously positioned to lead the most hawkish wing of the Republican Party. He is exceedingly bright, and blessed with a wonk's mind—I will readily admit that his knowledge of Middle East minutiae is impressive, even if I disagree with much of his analysis. And he is a superior standard-bearer for the confront-Iran-before-it's-too-late faction in the Senate because, as an Iraq combat veteran, he cannot be labeled a chickenhawk.

Confrontation is what it seems he's after. Though he pays lip service to the notion that the alternative to this deal is not war but a stronger deal, he clearly appears to believe that an American- or Israeli-initiated military confrontation soon—one that would not resemble the Iraq War, he thinks, but instead would be a strike of short duration and limited regional fallout—could prevent a nuclear confrontation sometime in the years to come. "If we agreed to the kind of proposal the Obama administration has made, then military confrontation may be further off, but it might also be nuclear," he argues.

(Read more: Tom Cotton, the GOP’s Newest Hawk, Takes Flight)

In our conversation (a lightly edited version of which appears below), we spent a great amount of time talking about the details of the provisional deal and their meaning. But we also talked about America's role in the world and President Obama's understanding of America's role in the world, and we autopsied the Iraq War as well. Cotton did not take away from the Iraq War a lesson I learned, and that many Republicans also learned, which is that America is not expert at fighting long wars on complicated Middle East battlefields.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You’ve argued that an attack on a group of Iranian nuclear sites would not lead to all-out war. It seems to me that an American attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would lead to an indirect response—or a somewhat direct response—by Iran against America’s Gulf allies, or against American facilities in the Gulf, and that an even more certain response would come from Hezbollah in the form of a sustained rocket salvo against Israel. That doesn't seem credible to you?

Senator Tom Cotton: Well, Operation Desert Fox [against Iraqi facilities] in 1998 lasted a number of days. [Former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister] Ehud Barak just said that he thought it would just take one night.

Goldberg: But I'm talking about the second-order consequences.

Cotton: I've consulted with various senior members of the Israeli government over the years, and they're aware of the possibility that Iran might use Hezbollah, in particular, to retaliate in an asymmetric way for any military strikes, either American or Israeli, and the assessment I've heard from them is that while that is a risk, it is a risk they can manage. This is different from what you might have seen nine years ago during the Hezbollah war in 2006, or even five years ago, when the talk of an Israeli strike was at its peak, in large part because of Iron Dome [an anti-missile system], and also because of the strain that sanctions have put on Iran—its ability to fund these kinds of operations and continue to replenish Hezbollah and their weapon stocks.

Goldberg: OK, that's the Israeli side. What about the response in the Gulf, whether against Gulf allies or against American facilities in Bahrain or Central Command itself in Qatar? These things don't worry you?

Cotton: I think the president is his own worst witness against this proposed course of action. He said in, I would say, almost mocking terms, in reference to the Iranian military over the weekend, that they know they can't challenge us—we spend $600 billion a year on our military, they spend $30 billion a year on theirs. This is correct. Not only do we have the ability to substantially degrade their nuclear facilities, but we have the capability, along with our Gulf allies, who have increased their military spending by over 50 percent, to largely protect them from any kind of retaliatory air or naval strikes.

Goldberg: Go to the deal. There's nothing in it that's fixable to your mind?

Cotton: Well, there's no deal within the framework, in my opinion. There's a long list of concessions that Iran's leaders continue to dispute they actually made. This framework, as you've written, is only a success within the specific reality they've created. And they created a very narrow and risky reality in which they were focused on getting any kind of deal they could. Now we're to the point where it is considered unrealistic to expect the United States to demand that Iran not engage in terrorism while we’re granting them nuclear concessions. I thought that [Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs] Yuval Steinitz had a good list of proposed changes to the president's proposal, and I don't think you can argue those changes are unrealistic, because all he did was take all the statements that President Obama and John Kerry and [chief U.S. negotiator] Wendy Sherman made at the very outset of these negotiations about stockpiles of enriched uranium, about the past military dimensions of this program, about inspections and so forth. The positions he lists are positions that our government previously held.

Goldberg: If you were president right now, would you not be engaged in this negotiation at all? Would you issue an ultimatum?

Cotton: Let's go back almost two years now, when I was one of 400 members of the House who voted for stronger sanctions against Iran. This is the summer of 2013. Those didn't pass in the Senate because the White House put immense pressure on Senate Democrats not to sponsor it, and Harry Reid didn't bring it to the floor. I certainly would have—if I had been advising the president at the time—gone ahead with those sanctions. I mean, he fought against Assad sanctions, ultimately accepting them only when they passed 99-0. But I wouldn't have started down this course of granting concessions to Iran, giving them billions of dollars when in return all we're getting is their willingness to sit at the table. They should be pleading with us to come to the table. And at numerous times through the negotiations, we should have been willing to walk away from the table and put more pressure on Iran.

Goldberg: Did the criticism about your open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei resonate with you at all? The idea that you are telling a foreign adversary, ‘Don't trust in our president—the man who's making our foreign policy?’ Did that cause you to ask yourself, 'Maybe I am undermining the executive branch?'

Cotton: No, in part because the letter didn't say that. The letter simply stated indisputable facts of constitutional law, and Iran's leaders needed to hear that message, and they needed to hear it from us. What we did was certainly more measured than what past senators had done, in conciliating with people like Manuel Noriega, Bashar al-Assad, or Leonid Brezhnev. The difference is we openly stood up to a dictator, and in a lot of those past precedents, Senate Democrats privately conciliated and coddled dictators.

Goldberg: Why do you think your general outlook is so disparaged, even in parts of the Republican Party? I don't mean the Rand Paul wing, even. I mean, I hear from Republicans who are wary of going down a path that would lead to another Middle East war. Or let me put this another way: Do you believe that the country is tired of these sorts of wars and of this kind of engagement?

Cotton: I think that Americans—and this is not true just now, but over the years—are not fundamentally opposed to war. They're fundamentally opposed to losing wars. And that's one reason why President Bush lost support for the Iraq War in the period of 2004 to 2006.

Goldberg: Do we have to win wars quickly to make them popular?

Cotton: I don't think we have to win quickly necessarily, but we have to win. By the time the 2008 election arrived, we had finally won the Iraq War, or we were on the road to winning it. We won starting in the summer of 2007 going into late 2011. Had President Obama, for instance, accepted our commanders' recommendations to keep a small residual force in Iraq, I think the country would have supported that decision. Also, the predictions of so many at the time have now proven correct—that there was a chance that Iraq, absent American forces, would be destabilized, and ultimately now we may end up with more troops in Iraq at the end of this president's tenure than we would have if he had just accepted his commanders' recommendations in 2011 to keep a residual force in place.

In the same way, this president, knowing that Americans don't want to lose a war, and in our most recent experience in Iraq, the war looked to be won, he’s now trying to create what he always accuses his opponents of trying to create: a false choice—'this deal or war.' And he defines war in Iran as 150,000 heavy mechanized troops, not something like Operation Desert Fox.

Goldberg: Let me just come back to this one point. How do you know you're right? The experience of Iraq taught me that once the kinetic piece starts, you just don’t know for sure what’s going to happen. And I don't know that you can predict the response of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to a direct American assault on [the Iranian facilities of] Natanz, Fordow, and Parchin. Maybe they will be intimidated into silence, but maybe they'll lose their minds? Yes, it's a $30-billion defense budget, but they have asymmetric ways of making life miserable for the United States and its allies. So how are you so sure that the response of the Iranians to an attack that would destroy their nuclear infrastructure, at least temporarily, would be limited and/or manageable?

Cotton: Well you never know these things for sure, but I think history provides me precedents. I mean not just, for instance, [the Israeli attack on the Iraqi reactor at] Osirak or the [Syrian nuclear reactor], but also, for instance, in the tanker operations in '87 and '88, when we helped secure free transit in the Persian Gulf. Iran did ultimately pull in its horns to some degree because they realized that Ronald Reagan was serious when he made those promises, when we flagged those vessels. And we do have amazing capability gaps over a country like Iran, as Israel does. We also have the support of allies throughout the region that traditionally have not been as supportive as we might like for operations like these.

Goldberg: What is Obama seeking here, in your mind?

Cotton: Well, I think he clearly wants to have a kind of grand rapprochement with Iran. This goes back to his actions in his earliest days, when he was silent in the face of [Iran's] Green Revolution, and even some of his statements in the campaign.

Goldberg: What's wrong with wanting a grand rapprochement with Iran?

Cotton: I would love to see that happen. As Secretary Schultz and Secretary Kissinger wrote, they've been in government when Iran was an ally, not just of the United States but of Israel. The Iranian people, if you look at their demographics and their level of education, could be a strong source for stability in the Middle East. The problem is they're run by an apocalyptic cult of ayatollahs.

Goldberg: How do you know they're apocalyptic?

Cotton: Their own words.

Goldberg: They seem to respond to incentives unlike, say, North Korea. Obviously, in 2003, when they thought that George W. Bush was pivoting their direction, they ceased doing work on their nuclear program, correct? They do seem to respond to reality.

Cotton: They react to threats that are severe enough. But it would be different if they had nuclear weapons. They refer to Israel as a "one-bomb state," which as you know means that Israel can be annihilated with one bomb. And they know as long as they don't have nuclear weapons that they are susceptible to the United States military, whether it was Reagan's actions in the tanker war or a fear of being next in 2003, as Muammar Qaddafi was at the time. But I think you can't count on that kind of attitude if they were to get nuclear weapons. I also think that Iran is more skillful at playing off of Western delusions than is the Kim regime [in North Korea].

There is a long and ignominious history of rogue regimes like Iran accepting these deals and immediately starting to cheat, as happened in North Korea, as happened in Iraq.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

Goldberg: Come back to the grand rapprochement that you talked about. One school of thought holds that President Obama wants to simply create equilibrium in the Middle East that would allow us to actually get out of the Middle East.

Cotton: I think there's something to that, if he wants to try and create a balance of power between Sunni and Shiites and simply exit the Middle East, or at least continue an ill-advised pivot to East Asia. I say ill-advised not because East Asia is not an important part of the world, but because the global superpower can't pivot. You have to be focused everywhere. So I think there's some of that. I mean, I think he believes fundamentally that American strength and leadership in the world has been as much a source of instability and disorder as it has been stability and order.

Goldberg: What are you implying? That he believes that America can be a force for bad as well as good in the world?

Cotton: Yes, that, if America was less of a leader in the world, then the world would probably be a better and more stable place. Unlike President Obama, I would say that I support the long-standing bipartisan post-War belief that American global strength and leadership secures our national-security interests and it also promotes order and stability in the world. And it gives us immense influence in the world, and deters our adversaries and reassures our allies.

Goldberg: Why do you think the Middle East is the way it is today?

Cotton: What do you mean by ‘the way it is?’

Goldberg: State disintegration, Sunni-Shiite proxy wars, chaotic, brutal, shocking violence, no particular hope for democratic development at the moment, and so on. There are two branches to the question. The first is: Is this beyond our control? Are the problems so big that there's nothing we can do about it? And the related question is: Are we equipped with knowledge, willpower, staying power to actually go in and try to create order out of the chaos?

Cotton: I think we can exercise a greater degree of control than we have, although that's not to say that it's simply within our control, of course. It's a large and complicated region with many different influencers and players, but because of American retreat I think we have contributed to the instability there. Take the Islamic State, for instance. If we had maintained a small, residual force in Iraq, I don't think the Islamic State would have risen to power as it has.

Goldberg: Can I take you one step backward and ask this question: If we hadn't ripped the lid off Iraq—in other words, if we had left the Sunni strongman in place—would any of this be happening today?

Cotton: Iraq would have remained a security threat over the last 12 years, because Iraq was a non-stop security threat from the moment Saddam Hussein took power in the 1970s. So it's hard to predict how that security threat would have manifested itself, but there’s no doubt that Iraq would have been an ongoing source of security threats to the United States and our allies and instability in the region. I was in Iraq in the worst period, 2006, but from 2006 to 2008, and especially through 2011, the American military and the government of Iraq made huge strides in making that country a source of stability with a relatively representative government that was seeking pluralistic engagement from all the factions within the government. I'm not saying it was a panacea, but it was much better than it ever had been and than many people thought it could be.

Goldberg: Stay back in 2006. When you were there, did it ever cross your mind, ‘We're in over our heads. What are we doing here? These people hate each other so much that there's nothing we can do to fix this.’ I mean, you were younger then, you didn't have as much exposure to different ideas—

Cotton: I've become more moderate with age.

Goldberg: Tell me what you thought.

Cotton: No, I never thought we were in over our head. I never thought it was hopeless. But I did know that we were losing. I had no doubt about that. I felt it. And I would say almost everyone on the front lines—by which I'd say battalion level or below, most of the people who were really out patrolling—knew it. You know, we didn't have enough troops, we didn't have the right strategy, and we weren't making any progress, which meant we were losing.

Goldberg: Do you think that the mistake—if you even accept the word mistake—of the invasion was getting involved at all, or was it bad planning that brought the U.S. to the near-abyss of 2006?

Cotton: I think it was an underemphasis on security in the early days, in 2003 and 2004. Security is sine qua non. I'd say there was too much focus on second-order steps necessary in that kind of environment, like building governmental structures and promoting economic development, none of which can occur without basic security. We simply didn't have the troops-to-task ratio needed to sustain our presence.

Goldberg: I don't meet that many people these days who think that the problems in Iraq were due to planning issues, study issues, rather than an underlying, faulty premise. And obviously this brings us to the way we think of Iran. We believe we have a limited set of options in Iran because many people in Washington and other places have ruled out the idea of engaging in a kinetic, preemptive strike because of their experience of watching Iraq spin out of control after America intervened in a difficult problem. That's why I find it so interesting that you believe there are answers to these questions.

Cotton: Well I mean, I think the answers were largely found and executed effectively from 2007 to 2011. Again, it's something that many thinkers in the military—not necessarily the highest level—thought in the 2003-2006 timeframe. The ones on the front lines understood. We could hear it from Iraqis. You can imagine what it would be like in an American city if you had a foreign army that was supposed to be providing security that didn't speak your language and came out for six-hour patrols and then went back to base three hours later, when you have someone who did speak your language there saying, 'When they leave, we're going to kill you.' Who are they going to side with? It's the same problem that we have with organized crime in urban areas. So, we saw that, and we saw what was going on and we saw what could go right, and I think that's what happened after the [Iraq troop] surge occurred. You know, it’s important in war that you defeat your enemy and to have your enemy know that he’s been defeated. The heart of the Sunni resistance, which became the heart of al-Qaeda in Iraq, didn't see that.

Goldberg: Do you believe there's any condition in which Barack Obama would use force against Iran?

Cotton: I hope there are conditions under which the leaders of Iran and most Middle Eastern leaders think that the United States would take military action against Iran. But Iran does not believe that America has a credible threat of force against them right now. I think that's clear from their behavior. It's also something that senior Arab leaders have communicated directly to me—that very few people, if any, in the Middle East believe that there is a credible threat of force by the United States. I think Iran does fear that Israel may strike them. To the extent that there is daylight between the United States and Israel—to use the president's term from 2009—it makes the threat of Israeli military action less credible in the leaders of Iran's minds. So I do think that there may be some policy objective in trying to create this kind of daylight with the government of Israel, to further dissuade their leadership from taking action if they deem it necessary to their national survival.

Goldberg: What conditions do you believe would have to obtain before Barack Obama would use military force against Iran?

Cotton: Right now I'd say they'd have to be very severe. If that Iranian naval fleet mined or otherwise blocked traffic through the Strait [of Hormuz], I hope that we would take prompt action to reopen it and punish them appropriately. But that's about as severe as it gets in international relations.

Goldberg: Let’s go to the nuclear deal.

Cotton: The list of concessions.

Goldberg: Is that what you call it?

Cotton: It's not a deal.

Goldberg: Well, you wouldn’t agree that the Iranians made tremendous concessions?

Cotton: No.

Goldberg: How could a provisional decision to reduce their stockpile from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms of highly enriched uranium not be understood by you as a concession?

Cotton: It's still unclear when or how they will do that—  

Goldberg: I use the word provisional because we don't know anything about a final deal yet.

Cotton: It's unclear how and when they'll do that. It's unclear how that will relate to the number of centrifuges they'll be able to maintain. And I don't think of almost anything to which they've agreed as much of a concession when, by the terms of their own proposal, President Obama has conceded that Iran will build and develop a nuclear weapon 11 years from today.

I think we should try to get a better deal, and one way to try and get a better deal is to show the Iranians that we're serious about getting a better deal.
Sen. Tom Cotton

Goldberg: I'm willing to see that both sides have domestic constituencies, and they're going to work things the way they work them. But let me get to the—

Cotton: No, I think it's different than just domestic constituencies. President Obama plainly said at the Saban Forum in December 2013 that Iran does not need an underground fortified bunker at Fordow. We have now conceded that they will have centrifuge cascades in that bunker.

Goldberg: Not spinning uranium though.

Cotton: It doesn't really matter what they spin as long as they're developing the technology and the skill sets to do it. I don't think President Obama or anyone on his negotiating team intends to walk back that concession. I don’t see any circumstance under which they will say, 'We insist on the closing of Fordow.' I do, however, see the supreme leader of Iran walking back on virtually everything they're presumed to have agreed to. They did it just last week on exporting their enriched uranium stockpiles to Russia, something that long ago had been conceded.

Goldberg: Let’s say it's June 30, and you’ve won. You and the Republicans and some of the Democrats have managed to kill this deal. What happens on July 1? Does Iran say, 'Screw you all. You can keep sanctions in place but we're going to continue to spin and we're going to move toward breakout.' And so you have a situation in which Iran might have a nuke in six months as opposed to 12 years? How is that a better situation?

Cotton: If they accept the terms of the deal they could be in the same position regardless in one year. They could just cheat on the deal anyway. There is a long and ignominious history of rogue regimes like Iran accepting these deals and immediately starting to cheat, as happened in North Korea, as happened in Iraq. The idea that a one-year breakout time—even if you thought that was technically correct—the idea that all of a sudden you're going to have inspectors catch this in a country the size of Iran, who immediately are able to report back, and then you’re going to develop a consensus in the civilized world, at the [International Atomic Energy Agency] or the UN Security Council, and then you're going to impose sanctions and those sanctions will not have any effect in a year—this is just fanciful, completely fanciful. So I don't think the proposal actually improves the situation that much, and it could ultimately pave the path for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, whether they follow the proposal or violate the proposal.

Goldberg: I don't get the sense that you're in total disagreement with Barack Obama on one point, which is that if there is no deal, the likelihood of a military confrontation as the solution becomes very, very high.

Cotton: Well I think we should try to get a better deal, and one way to try and get a better deal is to show the Iranians that we're serious about getting a better deal.

Unfortunately, when your commander-in-chief draws red lines and then he erases them, that sends a very dangerous signal to allies and adversaries alike.
Sen. Tom Cotton

Goldberg: How would you do that? Let's say you're Wendy Sherman for a day. What do you do?

Cotton: Just take last week. It was reported that President Obama told his negotiators, 'Blow through the deadline, but make it clear that we're willing to walk away.' I don't think that's a result of Barack Obama being inexperienced or incompetent or a bad negotiator. I think it's a reflection of his ideological commitment to get a deal at any cost.

Goldberg: But go to this point: He says that if we don't have a deal, then you, the people who are against the deal, are actually saying that we need a military solution.

Cotton: We’re not saying that. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu did not say that in his joint address [to Congress] and I'm not saying that. I'm saying that we have to be willing and we have to make the leadership of Iran realize that we are willing to take military action.

Goldberg: So you're not advocating for a 1998 Desert Fox-style operation?

Cotton: Iran's leaders need to know that we have both the capability and the willingness to take that kind of action. Unfortunately, when your commander-in-chief draws red lines and then he erases them, that sends a very dangerous signal to allies and adversaries alike.

Goldberg: Let me ask you this: The last nice thing that Benjamin Netanyahu ever said about Barack Obama he said to me, when he praised the deal that removed most of Syria’s chemical weapons. You could see the Iran deal as the same sort of thing: 'You give up this component of your WMD program, and then you, the regime, can remain in power.' From the Israeli perspective, that was not a bad thing—to get rid of the chemical-weapons depots right next door.

Cotton: So it's simply led [the Syrian regime] to more chemical attacks in different form, and it has strengthened Iran's hand and Russia's hand in the region. I mean, it's widely reported that President Obama in his private letter to Khamenei, not his open letter, basically granted Iran a legitimate sphere of interest in Syria, reassuring Iran that our campaign against the Islamic State, meek as it has proven to be, would not endanger Assad continuing in power.

Goldberg: What would you do in Syria right now?

Cotton: I would certainly be taking the fight to the Islamic State more aggressively—

Goldberg: What about to Assad?

Cotton: I'd say that the Islamic State is the more immediate threat, and Syria is their base of power—eastern and southern Syria—and right now, even in Iraq, the operations are too restrained. So I'd be taking the fight to the Islamic State much more aggressively. You know, Syria's a great example of how you need to try to nip these problems in the bud. They never get better with time. If you let these problems fester, then they continue to grow. That's the lesson time and time and time again. Obviously that's the lesson of the 1930s, but if you don't want to go to that example, then just look at what happened in the Balkans in the early 1990s.

What would Hezbollah do if their sponsor had a nuclear weapon?
Sen. Tom Cotton

Goldberg: Wait, is this the 1930s to you?

Cotton: It's unfair to Neville Chamberlain to compare him to Barack Obama, because Neville Chamberlain's general staff was telling him he couldn't confront Hitler and even fight to a draw—certainly not defeat the German military—until probably 1941 or 1942. He was operating from a position of weakness. With Iran, we negotiated privately in 2012-2013 from a position of strength, not a position of weakness. The secret negotiations in Oman. This ultimately led to the Joint Plan of Action of November 2013. So we were negotiating from a position of strength—not just inherent military strength of the United States compared to Iran, but also from our strategic position.

Goldberg: You obviously don't believe that this deal could have an ameliorating effect on Iran—that it could strengthen the hands of the moderates who want to rejoin the international community in some kind of way.

Cotton: I am skeptical that there are many moderates within the leadership—

Goldberg: You don't consider [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani a moderate?

Cotton: No, and I don't think the students he oppressed in 1999 would consider him a moderate. [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, you know, a famous moderate, called for the nuclear annihilation of Israel. I don't consider that to be moderate either. I think it's kind of like the search for the vaunted moderates in the Kremlin throughout most of the Cold War, with the exception that we could always count on the Soviet leadership to be concerned about national survival in a way that I don't think we can count on a nuclear-armed Iranian leadership to be solely concerned about national survival.

I would also just say that there are actions over the last two years that have disproved the thesis that there might be these emerging moderates who are ready to take the reins of powers, that Iran can change its behavior as long as the ayatollahs are in power. I mean, just look at what they've done throughout the region. Why would we grant them these concessions? I mean, imagine, if they get a nuclear weapon, they'll have a nuclear umbrella and then that'll be tremendously destabilizing. I think it will probably lead to the detonation of a nuclear device somewhere in the world, if not outright nuclear war. But it could even just lead to greater conventional threats. What would Hezbollah do if their sponsor had a nuclear weapon?

Goldberg: Is it unfair of me to say that if we follow the course that you would have us follow, there is a high likelihood that the president will be facing, within the year, an Iran moving toward breakout, because—what’s the Janis Joplin line?—‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing to lose’? If they don't get their sanctions lifted or they don't get a deal, then they'll just go for breakout. So, is it unfair of me to say that your path would lead us to either total capitulation to a nuclear Iran or a military confrontation with Iran within the next six to 18 months?

Cotton: I think the more likely outcome is a total capitulation because of the proposal that we have made. I also think that military confrontation is possible, although it would be a conventional military confrontation. If we agreed to the kind of proposal the Obama administration has made, then military confrontation may be further off, but it might also be nuclear.

Goldberg: Wait—that’s interesting and clarifying—you actually see the possibility of nuclear military confrontation 10 years down the road if this deal goes through?

Cotton: Twenty years, 10 years, 12 years, who knows? The proposal puts Iran on the path to being a nuclear-arms state, and I think once Iran becomes a nuclear-arms state, this will lead inevitably to some kind of military confrontation. It may not be initially with the United States, but I think that's virtually inevitable.

Goldberg: And so your feeling is, deal with the problem now, before it gets worse?

Cotton: In security matters, this is almost always the case.

Goldberg: And if that means dealing with it militarily, then deal with it militarily?

Cotton: The world probably wishes that Great Britain had rebuilt its defenses and stopped Germany from reoccupying the Rhineland in 1936. Churchill said when Chamberlain came back from Munich, 'You had a choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will therefore be at war.' And when President Obama likes to say, 'It's this deal or war,' I would dispute that and say, 'It's this deal or a better deal through stronger sanctions and further confrontation with [Iran's] ambitions and aggression in the region.' And if it is military action, I would say it's more like Operation Desert Fox or the tanker war of the 1980s than it is World War II. In the end, I think if we choose to go down the path of this deal, it is likely that we could be facing nuclear war.