Tom Cotton blames the wrong president for Iranian threat

It was about a week ago when President Joe Biden sat down with an Israeli news outlet and took aim at one of his predecessor’s most important failures: Donald Trump, the Democrat said, made a “gigantic mistake“ withdrawing the United States from the international nuclear agreement with Iran, which pushed our adversary closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas offered a very different perspective on Fox News over the weekend.

“[Biden] and other Democrats like him always blame America first, and they side with so many of the resistance nations in the world they think are standing up to American power. That is why Barack Obama and Joe Biden have conciliating with Iran for the last 15 years even as under both Barack Obama’s watch and now Joe Biden’s watch, they’ve let Iran rush forward with a nuclear weapon,” Cotton added.

First, the whole “blame America first” line is a stale and tiresome slander, which Cotton happens to be getting backwards.

Second, given the open letter to Iran that the GOP senator helped organize seven years ago, in which he appeared eager to sabotage his own country’s foreign policy, this is a topic the Arkansan should probably try to avoid.

But even putting these relevant details aside, it’s striking to see the ambitious Republican make the case that the incumbent American president has “let Iran rush forward with a nuclear weapon” — a claim that turns reality on its head.

In fact, if Cotton is looking for a president who actually “let Iran rush forward with a nuclear weapon,” I think I can help.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, I’ve been banging my head against this wall for a long while, but as Iran appears to accumulate enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb, it’s important to appreciate the extent to which we’re dealing with the consequences of Trump’s “gigantic mistake.”

It was Joe Cirincione, whose expertise in international nuclear diplomacy has few rivals, who wrote a piece for NBC News last year explaining that the international community has been tasked with trying to “undo the damage Donald Trump caused when he left an agreement that had effectively shrunk Iran’s [nuclear] program, froze it for a generation and put it under lock and camera.”

I continue to believe this is an underappreciated truth. As we’ve discussed, the Iran deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or JCPOA) — did exactly what it set out to do: The agreement dramatically curtailed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and established a rigorous system of monitoring and verification. Once the policy took effect, each of the parties agreed that the participants were holding up their end of the bargain, and Iran’s nuclear program was, at the time, on indefinite hold.

And then Trump took office and got to work abandoning the policy for reasons he was never able to explain.

One of my favorite stories about the Iran deal came a few months into Trump’s term in the White House, when the then-president held a lengthy meeting with top members of his team: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, White House National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford. Each of the officials told Trump the same thing: it was in the United States’ interest to preserve the existing JCPOA policy.

The Republican expected his team to tell him how to get out of the international agreement, not how to stick with it. When his own foreign policy and national security advisers told him the policy was working, Trump “had a bit of a meltdown.”

Soon after, he abandoned the JCPOA anyway, not because it was failing, but because Trump was indifferent to its success.

As a result, the West lost verification access to Tehran’s program, and Iran almost immediately became more dangerous by starting up advanced centrifuges and ending its commitment to limit enrichment of uranium.

What’s more, Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May that after Trump’s decision, Iranian attacks on U.S. personnel in the region got worse, Iranian support for regional proxies got worse, and the pace of the Iranians’ nuclear research program got “much worse.”

Soon after, the International Atomic Energy Agency told the world that Iran’s nuclear program — the one that was “frozen for a generation” and “put under lock and camera” as part of the Obama/Biden administration’s breakthrough success — has reached a new, dangerous level.

The Biden administration has tried to undo Trump’s mistake and strike a new international agreement, though those talks have faltered in recent months, and a breakthrough now appears unlikely.

For Cotton to look at these circumstances and conclude that Biden has “let Iran rush forward with a nuclear weapon” is demonstrably ridiculous.