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Ali Gharib | The Nation

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Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib

Undiplomatic wrangling.

Cult Leader Will Tell Congress: Fight ISIS by Regime Change in Iran

Maryam Rajavi

Maryam Rajavi, co-leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and president-elect of the National Council of Resistence of Iran (Reuters/Vincent Kessler)

Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade announced that a controversial Iranian exile opposition figure would be testifying via video uplink at a hearing on the Islamic State, known as ISIS. What does the witness, Maryam Rajavi, a co-leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), have to say about the subject at hand?

Rajavi’s written testimony, a copy of which was obtained by The Nation, focuses on an unexpected way of bringing ISIS to heel: by fostering regime change in Iran. “The ultimate solution to this problem” of Islamic extremism, such as ISIS, Rajavi says in the written statement, “is regime change by the Iranian people and Resistance”—a reference to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the MEK’s political wing.

It sounds counter-intuitive—Iran’s aid to the Iraqi government and various Iraqi militias, after all, is widely credited with stopping ISIS’s advances there—but not when you know about the MEK’s tortuous past. Over the years, the MEK has been nothing if not opportunistic; animated by the twisted logic that the enemy of its enemy is its friend, the group seizes whatever political angle is fashionable at the moment to bring them relevance (Congress is happy to oblige). But more to the point, the MEK has always had only one goal: the overthrow of the Iranian regime. For decades, it has tried to shoehorn regional and geopolitical dynamics into its aim, irrespective of any salient connections.

The plan to bring down ISIS by toppling Iran’s government, then, is little more than the latest chapter of group’s 50-year history of monomaniacally trying to install itself atop the Iranian government. Indeed, Rajavi is testifying at Congress with the title of “president-elect” of the NCRI, which hopes to run a transitional government immediately upon the fall of the Islamic Republic.

Founded as an Islamo-Marxist revolutionary group in the 1960s, the MEK spent its early years pursuing its quixotic aims by opposing the Shah’s government with a vengeance: through student organizing, outright terrorism—including against American targets when the United States was allied with the Shah, helping to earn its 1997 American designation as a terror group—and fighting at the vanguard of the Islamic Revolution. By the 1980s, after the leader of the revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini, kicked the group out of Iran, critics were regularly deriding the MEK as a cult of personality—not least because of its continuing “wacky” behavior, as a former congressional aide put it to me for a feature I wrote this winter with Eli Clifton.

So how do Rajavi and MEK plan to end the threat from ISIS by upending the Iranian regime? That’s not so clear. But it definitely involves ignoring, despite the current clashes, the distinction between Sunni and Shia extremism—including, for example, propagandistic exaggerations like saying that “Shiite militias act more viciously than their Sunni equivalents, such as ISIS”—and pointing out several times that Iran went Islamist before anyone else. That’s about it.

It’s worth noting, however, that the MEK does have some experience in Iraq: after going into exile, its leaders gathered their fighters in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to take his side in the Iran-Iraq war—earning the enmity of many Iranians. After the war ended, the MEK, led by Maryam Rajavi and her husband Massoud (who hasn’t been seen in public for a dozen years), stuck around and enjoyed Hussein’s largesse, acting, periodically, as mercenaries to crush incipient uprising against the Iraqi strongman—earning, in turn, the enmity of many Iraqis.

After Hussein’s fall in 2003, the American invaders stripped the MEK of its multitude of arms. (Curiously, for a group that claims to have renounced violence in 2001, Rajavi cites in her Congressional testimony the “disarming” of the MEK as a “misguided polic[y]” that helped give rise to Muslim extremism—but not the invasion that toppled their benefactor itself.) The MEK then languished in its camps, coming under periodic attack by a murky combination of the Iraqi army and, reportedly, government-aligned Shia militias. Dozens of MEK adherents were slaughtered.

The period also marked the growth of an ardent pro-MEK lobby in the United States. As Eli Clifton and I detailed in our Intercept piece this winter, a multimillion-dollar campaign kicked into gear to remove the MEK from the US State Department’s terrorist list. Once that hurdle was cleared, the MEK—despite its cult-like practices—began to accumulate more mainstream power in Congress, where super-hawkishness against Iran is guaranteed to attract powerful bedfellows, including large amounts of pro-Israel donor money and more modest cash from MEK supporters themselves.

Meanwhile, the massacres of the MEK’s ex-fighters at its Iraqi desert bases fueled the group’s hatred of the Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki, which had failed to protect them. Just as the MEK had grown close to Hussein because he was an arch-enemy of the Iranian regime, the group likewise reviled Maliki’s government, and vice-versa, for its closeness to the Iranians—the Islamic Republic had hosted and fostered Maliki’s movement in exile before the 2003 war, and supported his Shia government after its rise to power in Iraq.

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When ISIS began to rip apart what was still then Maliki’s Iraq, the MEK’s prevailing logic seemed to again fall back on the enemy of its enemy. Perhaps chastened by their own labeling by the US as a terrorist organization, the group seldom uses the word “terrorism” in conjunction with ISIS. Instead, MEK propaganda refers to ISIS as “extremists,” in some instances. At other times, the language is more ambiguous: Last June, when ISIS took the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, one MEK website gave a triumphalist account of the conquest, referring to ISIS as “revolutionary forces.”

Historical revisionism of the ISIS assault started almost immediately. “These forces have taken over the Badoush prison and they had hundreds of prisoners that had been proclaimed to be terrorists and they freed them,” read a Persian-language post on the website Mojahedin.org. HRW, however, collected survivor testimonies from the prison takeover that told a different story: “After seizing Badoush Prison near Mosul, the gunmen from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, separated the Sunni from the Shia inmates,” an HRW release said, “then forced the Shia men to kneel along the edge of a nearby ravine and shot them with assault rifles and automatic weapons.”

Herein lies the MEK contradiction behind its early positions. On the one hand, ISIS, like the MEK, is militantly opposed to Iranian influence in the region. But Rajavi needs to gin up support in Washington. So she poses herself in opposition to ISIS, claiming the best strategy for fighting the marauding Sunni terrorists is to… overthrow the first regime in the region to commit blood, money and heavy weaponry to the fight against ISIS.

As ISIS became the world’s most famous terrorist group, the MEK eased its whitewash and adopted the stances Rajavi will bring to Congress on Thursday: namely, that ISIS is an extremist group—whose model and inspiration is Iran, however nonsensical that point is. That Congress would invite these ex-terrorists—Rajavi’s past prevents her from getting a visa, the reason for her video testimony—speaks ill of their commitment to shaping serious policy on either ISIS or Iran. Rajavi’s participation proved such an embarrassment that a distinguished diplomat, Ambassador Robert Ford, and another witness withdrew from the hearing rather than speak alongside her on the dais—just as the top UN official for human rights in Iran withdrew from a program last year in Canadian parliament where Rajavi was set to appear.

The MEK’s story is a tragic one of sustained failure, of being massacred and massacring, of being abused and abusing its own people, of terrorizing and being terrorized, and of a constantly morphing politics consistent only in its oddness and toxicity. That story needs to be heard, but as a cautionary tale, not as expert advice. Instead, Congress is asking one of the groups most hated in Iraq and Iran what to do about those countries’ woes. What could go wrong?

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on AIPAC vs. the neocons on Iran

AIPAC vs. the Neocons on Iran

Bill Kristol

Bill Kristol (CC BY 2.0)

There’s a fascinating divide emerging over the Corker-Cardin compromise bill that would give Congress a vote on an Iran deal and which unanimously emerged from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. The compromise, engineered by committee chair Bob Corker (R-TN) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD), softened some provisions in Corker’s original bill. With Democrats supporting the bill, the White House perhaps saw the writing on the wall and dropped its opposition—and veto threat—against the new version.

Now, though, Republican hawks in Congress are looking to weigh the bill down with amendments that would certainly invoke a veto. The charge is being led by Sen. Tom Cotton, the combative Arkansas Republican who has emerged as the upper chamber’s most vociferous Iran hawk. Cotton has vowed to introduce several amendments that would make congressional approval of any Iran nuclear deal virtually impossible. Several other Republican senators have promised to do the same.

What’s so fascinating is that AIPAC supports the Corker-Cardin compromise. The flagship Israel lobby group likely sees the bill, which creates a procedure for Congress to vote approval or disapproval of a final Iran nuclear accord, as a good first step to kill the deal it has opposed from the start. The logic would be that enacting Corker-Cardin would lay the groundwork, then the lobby would set about trying to convince enough Democrats to support its anti-diplomacy position to get Congress to vote down the final agreement when that time comes.

A piece today in Bloomberg View headlined the fight between the Israel lobby and the Republican über-hawks as “Aipac vs. Pro-Israel Republicans.” But it would more accurately be called “AIPAC vs. the Neocons.” And we shouldn’t forget for a moment that the bankrupt ideology of neoconservatism is behind these efforts; the line between leading neocons and this obstructionism is too easy to trace—and too laughably reminiscent of their misadventure in Iraq.

Cotton, after all, is a protégé of neoconservative don Bill Kristol. And Kristol has come out firing at the Corker-Cardin compromise. In a Weekly Standard editorial later distributed by his attack-dog letterhead group the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), Kristol labeled the compromise bill “at worst misleading, at best toothless,” denouncing Corker and “the leading establishment pro-Israel lobbying group”—AIPAC—for their support of it.

Kristol couched his call for “implant(ing) teeth in the legislation’s clammy gums” as a way to avoid conflict: “Perhaps future wars in the Middle East can be made less likely,” he mused. Who does he think he’s kidding? Kristol has already called for war with Iran! Cotton, for his part, has been totally frank about opposing any deal with Iran whatsoever, not simply seeking a “better deal.” And Cotton’s alternative? He has said war with Iran will be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy—or, if you prefer to harken back to the drumming for war with Iraq, a cakewalk. (Kristol’s ECI—which, speaking of Iraq, was birthed in the same office as the neoconservative Committee to Liberate Iraqthrew a million dollars behind Cotton’s Senate campaign.)

As Jim Lobe noted, all this comes as Republican presidential hopefuls—some of whom in the Senate are set to introduce their own compromise-killing measures—are getting ready to prostrate themselves before Sheldon “Nuke Iran” Adelson, the Republican mega-donor and hard-line Likudnik that funds a virtual who’s who of Washington’s network of neocon think tanks and anti-Iran diplomacy groups. Adelson demands of his beneficiaries total fealty to his extraordinarily hawkish pro-Israel views (he even publicly upbraided AIPAC, which he has funded to the tune of millions, over the group’s support for George W. Bush’s short-lived Annapolis process for Israeli-Palestinian peace).

That tidbit of a fact helps to place some of this maneuvering (some might say posturing) in an important historical context. For the neocons, what’s wrong with the Corker-Cardin compromise is not the compromise itself, but rather who it was with: namely, Democrats. There’s a long history that we needn’t get into here (check out Dan Luban’s excellent review of neoconservatism’s history for some of it and Norman Podhoretz’s disappointment in Jewish Democrats for another angle), but suffice to say that neoconservatives have realized for some years now that Democrats, especially staunchly liberal Democrats, are too squishy on foreign policy to be good allies. A lot of it boils down to Democrats just not being excited enough for foreign wars.

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And so the neoconservatives and their closest allies in the far-right pro-Israel world hammer away at anything that Democrats have touched; the rejectionism and obstructionism of the Tea Party makes for a fine comparison to the way neocons treat moderate Republicans on foreign policy, not to mention the Democrats they would work with. And AIPAC has not been immune: my old boss Peter Beinart has documented this well in instances like the 2012 Democratic convention Jerusalem platform fight and the Chuck Hagel nomination row. The neocons want to pull AIPAC—with all its clout and money—into the Republican fold because they think bipartisan Middle East hawkishness is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit.

AIPAC seems pretty freaked out about it, and who can blame them: they’re losing. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started really alienating Democrats with his constant, cocksure interventions into the American debate over Iran—not to mention effectively endorsing the Republican in the 2012 US election—and kept driving coffin nails with his racist election tactics. The GOP, however, is eating it all up. What’s more, the big pro-Israel money, particularly but not limited to Sheldon Adelson, is firmly committed to yanking the GOP right on Israel—and that’s working, too!

In the case of the Iran bill, this is likely to hamper neoconservatives and AIPAC alike in their efforts to squash an Iran nuclear deal. If any of the negotiation-killing amendments are added to the Corker-Cardin bill, hawkish Democrats are going to squirm but eventually sustain President Obama’s veto. The naked partisanship of the neocons’ machinations are so obvious that it’ll be an easy decision, even for hawkish Democrats like Chuck Schumer. This would be just the latest instance where GOP partisanship has staved off a congressional affront to Obama’s diplomacy.

But it’s still worth noting that causes considered “pro-Israel”—and make no mistake that killing an Iran deal is, in Washington, a pro-Israel cause—are increasingly being conflated with doctrinaire neoconservatism and taken up solely by Republicans. This is the battle neocons are winning—but being the ideologues that they are, Kristol and his comrades will be satisfied with nothing short of total victory in the war. Which, in the case of Iran, would be launching an actual one.

Read Next: Ali Gharib on how NBC knowingly let Syria rebels’ false war propaganda stand for years

How NBC Knowingly Let Syria Rebels’ False War Propaganda Stand For Years

Richard Engel

NBC's Richard Engel and his team appear on The Today Show on December 18, 2012, hours after their release. (NBC News)

An NBC News journalist is involved in a harrowing scene of battlefield danger. The journalist’s first-person story serves as the dominant narrative for years—but it turns out to be wrong, very wrong. Sound familiar? This isn’t the Brian Williams scandal. It’s worse: the story of the December 2012 kidnapping and rescue of Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, in Syria.

The prevailing narrative held that, as Engel reported immediately after he was freed, a group of Shia militiamen loyal to Basher Assad’s embattled government had kidnapped and mistreated the star reporter and his colleagues. Engel pointed to the language his captors used and other pronounced signs of their allegiances, ranging from graffiti scrawled on the wall of their prison to the coffee cups they drank from.

But the narrative was false, a set-up by a Sunni rebel group opposing Assad. That much became clear on Wednesday night, when NBC quietly posted a piece to its website where Engel corrected the record. “The group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia,” Engel wrote. Curiously, the piece is posited as producing “new details” about the attack, not as a correction; there was no retraction of or apology for earlier errors in reporting, as is customary.

Far from answering all the questions about the episode, Engel’s update piece did not give a full accounting of the story from NBC’s perspective. Those gaps were filled, in part, by a subsequent report in The New York Times. The resulting picture looks very bad for NBC, in many ways worse than Brian Williams’s fall from grace due to self-aggrandizement of his now-infamous helicopter incident in Iraq. This was war propaganda spread by NBC, a respected institution in American news. And if the Times’s account is to be believed, the network let the false story stand for years knowing full well that it was at least questionable, if not entirely false.

In Engel’s clarification of his original version story, he wrote:

About a month ago, we were contacted by The New York Times. The newspaper had uncovered information that suggested the kidnappers were not who they said they were and that the Syrian rebels who rescued us had a relationship with the kidnappers.

But in the Times story that subsequently hit the Internet, some part of NBC’s operation was well aware of the doubts over the culpability of pro-Assad forces (with my emphasis):

NBC executives were informed of [known Sunni rebels’] possible involvement during and after Mr. Engels’s captivity, according to current and former NBC employees and others who helped search for Mr. Engel, including political activists and security professionals.

Engel explained in his update piece that the “group that kidnapped us put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen.” That may be so, and one can hardly blame Engel, amid and immediately following his ordeal, for falling for such a ruse and reporting what he believed to be the facts upon his release. As any conflict correspondent can tell you, the fog of war is very real for journalists working in war zones, and discerning the truth can be difficult.

What’s difficult to fathom is how NBC executives who had this information allowed Engel’s report to air without immediately getting on the phone to demand that the story be walked back. Such a move would only have been appropriate considering the information that they had themselves gathered (detailed by the Times) and, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out yesterday, the fact that at least two prominent voices—the popular blogger As’ad AbuKhalil and the Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer—had cast serious doubt on the involvement of pro-Assad militias.

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Why is this so much more serious than the Brian Williams scandal? At stake in l’affaire Williams was merely the reputation of a veteran journalist—Williams himself—and not decisions of war and peace for the United States. In the Engel saga, the aim of the rebels who kidnapped his crew clearly became to demonize the Assad regime (an aim, it bears mentioning, whose realization hardly requires spreading falsehoods) with the goal of goading the West into military intervention against Assad.

This is exactly what other rebel commanders, once they became aware of the kidnapping, hoped to accomplish, according to the Times: “Several rebels and others with detailed knowledge of the episode said that the safe release of NBC’s team was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support.” (Engel, too, acknowledged this: “it is clear we were…released for propaganda purposes,” he wrote.)

Engel noted in his piece last night that the new account “underscore[s] the treacherous and violent nature of the conflict inside Syria.” It’s a shame that whichever NBC executives were aware of the (ultimately true) counter-narrative chose to do nothing to revise the original story quickly, instead opting to shield their viewers from this picture, even at a time when more robust military support for the so-called Free Syrian Army was being hotly debated in the United States.

NBC News’s failure to quickly correct the record made the network into a willing conduit for pro-war propaganda by a murky coalition of Syrian rebel groups. (And let me repeat that the executives who apparently failed to impose a course correction despite the information they had acquired, rather than the correspondent and team on the ground, deserve the blame.)

“An NBC News spokesman said the network would have no comment beyond the statement posted on its site,” reported the Times. That’s a shame, too, because there are still plenty of questions NBC News’s audience deserves answers to.

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on Tom Cotton’s warmongering

Tom Cotton: The Iran War Will Be a Cakewalk

Senator Tom Cotton

Senator Tom Cotton (Reuters/Laura Downing)

Last we heard from Tom Cotton, he was marshaling most of his Republican Senate colleagues into a widely ridiculed letter to Iran, trying to rile up the Islamic Republic's hard-liners to oppose a nuclear deal with President Obama. Whereas other opponents of a deal couch their opposition in hopes for a unicorn "better deal," Cotton had been explicit about his aim of killing talks.

What's his alternative to negotiations? The freshman senator form Arkansas has been shy on this front: he's stopped short of directly calling for military strikes on the Islamic Republic. But in an appearance on a religious right radio show on Tuesday, Cotton suggested he doesn't think a new war would be such a big deal.

Here's BuzzFeed's transcript of the relevant bits of Cotton's remarks:

Even if military action were required—and we certainly should have kept the credible threat of military force on the table throughout which always improves diplomacy—the president is trying to make you think it would be 150,000 heavy mechanized troops on the ground in the Middle East again as we saw in Iraq and that’s simply not the case.

It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. Several days air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior. For interfering with weapons inspectors and for disobeying Security Council resolutions.

There's a lot wrong with this (more on which in a moment), but the first thing to note, as the analyst Matt Duss quickly did, is that Cotton's formulation—Attacking Iran? NBD!—smacks of the prediction neoconservative hawks made about the Iraq war: that it would be a "cakewalk." Astoundingly, given how that war played out, this isn't the first time neoconservative ideologues have dismissed the complexity, difficulty and potential consequences of a new war against Iran.

The first notable salvo downplaying a future war came from then-Senator Joseph Lieberman, who declared in 2010 that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities wasn't a war at all, despite the clear implications of dropping bombs on a foreign country. "We're not talking about a war, because nobody is talking about invading Iran," Lieberman said.

Then during the 2012 campaign, as Obama pointed out the dangers of war with Iran, the neoconservative pundit and then-Mitt Romney adviser Dan Senor attacked the administration's public airing of potential consequences of a strike. Obama "talk(s) about how disastrous military action against Iran would be for the United States, for the global economy, for the region," Senor complained, as if Americans are not entitled to a public debate about what they're getting into.

These are but a few examples; other neoconservatives, too, have routinely downplayed the potential consequences of an attack—sometimes, as pundit Lee Smith has, denying the broad consensus of the American defense community and military brass that a strike would only delay Iran's nuclear program.

That Cotton—a protégé of Bill Kristol whose campaign enjoyed an almost $1 million ad buy thanks to Kristol's hardest-line letterhead group—would follow neoconservative suit on the ease of an Iran war shouldn't be surprising. Nor should it be that his case is based on head-spinning historical revisionism.

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Let's plug a few of the holes in Tom Cotton's narrative of Operation Desert Fox. The attacks of the late 'nineties only came after Iraq violated the conditions imposed on it after defeat in 1991's Gulf War (a full-scale invasion). Then came Desert Fox—the relative ease of which was aided by the destruction of Iraq's military and years of no-fly zones. Then neoconservative ideologues argued that Clinton's brief war, just like Bush Sr.'s Gulf War, hadn't gone far enough in that it didn't force regime change. Clinton's weakness, one neocon bogusly argued (we now know), forced Saddam Hussein in to Osama Bin Laden's hands. Therefore, the second Iraq war—the costly, bloody quagmire that we were promised would be a "cakewalk"—became necessary. "There were no inspectors left to investigate" whether Clinton's strikes had really destroyed Hussein's WMD programs, argued Kristol and his comrade Bob Kagan in a 2004 Weekly Standard article patting themselves on the back for pushing the war.

Of course, Iran has stymied some inspections, but by-and-large international inspectors are today operating there and would, in the case of the deal Cotton and his hawkish allies oppose, be given a much broader mandate. (Decrying the framework for talks agreed to last week, Cotton, amid blowing a few more facts, complained that the deal will do nothing to staunch Iran's non-nuclear malfeasance in the region—something a few days of targeted strikes on Iran's nuclear sites are sure to exacerbate, not help, though Cotton on Tuesday made no mention of Iranian retaliation whatsoever.)

What's more, if the US or Israel were to attack Iranian nuke sites, that could very well spur Iran to do something, according to American and Israeli intelligence estimates, it hasn't yet: make the decision to build a bomb. But don't take my word for it: two former top security chiefs from Cotton's favorite country, Israel, have explicitly made this point.

That scenario presents a problem for hawks like Cotton, though he and many others scrupulously avoid making the stakes of what they're discussing clear. Only one neoconservative that I've seen was honest enough to explain. In the Washington Post last month, Joshua Muravchik wrote that the solution for dealing with Iran's reconstitution of its program after an attack was simple: just bomb again and again (nevermind that the task will be more complicated with the Iranian program driven underground). The Israelis call this "mowing the lawn," a euphemism for perpetual war. No wonder Cotton and his comrades don't bring it up very much; to do so would show their plan for attacking Iran would be anything but a cakewalk.

 

Read Next: Read Next: Ali Gharib on the historic Iran agreement

The Iran Agreement Is Historic. Will Congress Destroy It?

Javad Zarif

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a press conference in Lausanne, Switzerland on Thursday, April 2, 2015 (AP/Brendan Smialowski)

Just wait for the congressional freakout that comes if world powers and Iran sign a comprehensive nuclear accord this summer. Negotiations advanced on Thursday with a framework agreement between Iran and the P5+1—the United States, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany—that maps out the imposition of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The sides will now begin to draft the final accord, due by the end of June. That leaves plenty of time for the most hawkish and recalcitrant members of Congress to try to scupper talks. And if the reaction to Thursday’s agreement is any indication, they most certainly will.

Take Mark Kirk, the Republican senator from Illinois and AIPAC stalwart. A leader in efforts to sanction the Iranians—even during the last year of talks, when it would spell the end of negotiations—led the way with the most outlandish statement. Building on his past theme comparing negotiations to the Munich Agreement that ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler, but didn’t satisfy the Nazi appetite for conquest, Kirk lashed out. “Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler than Wendy Sherman”—the State Department number three—“got out of Iran,” he said.

That talking point belies what proponents of an Iran nuke deal have been saying for years: that those opposing a compromise want war. The stale neoconservatism that dominates Kirk’s thinking—and fear-mongering—doesn’t dictate that Chamberlain should’ve gotten a better deal in Munich, but that Munich should never have happened and Europe should have gone to war against Hitler earlier.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas GOP freshman Senator Tom Cotton—who led a, shall we say, unorthodox effort last month to kill the talks by appealing directly to his hardline counterparts in Iran—came out with a point blank denial of reality: “There is no nuclear deal or framework with Iran,” he said in a statement. “Contrary to President Obama’s insistence, the former deputy director of the UN’s nuclear watchdog has said terms such as these will allow Iran to achieve nuclear breakout in just a few months, if not weeks.”

Except that Cotton got that wrong. The UN nuclear official he referred to is Olli Heinonen, now with Harvard. Heinonen affirmed in the Washington Post yesterday that the terms of the deal, leaving Iran with 5000 centrifuges, would yield a breakout time—the period needed for Iran to “dash” to enough fissile material for a bomb, if a deal collapsed—of a year, not months or weeks. And a year-long breakout time has long been the goal of talks, a key aim by which a variety of nuclear experts have said a deal should be measured. A well-established skeptic of the talks, Heinonen seemed “impressed” with the framework, according to The New York Times, whom he told the agreement “appears to be a fairly comprehensive deal with most important parameters.”

These congressional reactions are of course the most outlandish, but they don’t bode well for hawks’ effort to wrangle support for deal-killing measures. The hyperbolic rhetoric and sloppy statements will make it still more difficult for Democrats to sign on with them. If anything, Kirk’s ideological rants should shame those Democrats who already did work with him. Kirk and AIPAC’s most frequent Democratic collaborator, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, took time away from pleading not guilty to federal corruption charges yesterday to release a brief, mild-mannered statement on the agreement that departed sharply from Kirk’s tone.

Other Democrats, while cautious, were more sanguine than Menendez has generally been on talks anyway; many expressed support for the framework. For the moment, the guarded support resulted in the latest Kirk Menendez sanctions push getting put on hold. That leaves the other congressional play: to win the right for approval of any final deal. With history as a guide, though, these efforts seem likely to soften in the face of Democratic support for diplomacy. Last year, as Eli Clifton and I wrote in the magazine, Kirk and Menendez’s last attempt at new sanctions—which were likely to kill talks—ended up falling flat when Democrats refused to buck the Obama administration and grassroots support for an interim deal. The Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s support for the framework will only strengthen that dynamic. (Prospective Republican presidential nominees are—surprise!—lining up against the framework agreement.)

Earlier this week, another nuclear expert skeptical of a deal, former administration non-proliferation czar Gary Samore, who works with a hawkish anti-Iran group, told a Columbia University audience that Congress was unlikely to reject any deal. (Samore, who has the ear of Congress, told the Times yesterday he found the new agreement’s key provisions to be “very satisfactory.”) But in downplaying likely congressional intransigence, Samore got the big issue wrong: he cited the difficulty for Congress of putting sanctions back in place if it rejects a deal.

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That’s not really what’s at stake here. Congress, especially Democrats, the reasonable ones at least (not those willing to work with Mark Kirk, for example), will be hesitant to kill a deal because the heightened prospect of another disastrous war of choice in the Middle East is too daunting. AIPAC, in its statement, rejected the notion “that the only alternatives to this framework are capitulation or military action,” but they’re wrong. Killing this deal—the result, so far, of more than two years of grueling diplomacy—would put the United States back on the path to confrontation with Iran. The progress made cannot simply be undone and remade; American credibility would be destroyed. John Bolton’s recent pro-war op-ed was right about this one thing: as Dana Milbank put it, “The alternative to a negotiated settlement is not stronger sanctions—it’s war.”

Congress’s demand for a vote on a final deal isn’t on its own unreasonable. But, when Congress is controlled by Republicans hellbent on quashing every item on Obama’s agenda, seeking to avoid their official input isn’t either. The fight over getting an up-or-down vote—a Republican led proposal garnering some Democratic support is deeply flawed, for instance, and a Democratic alternative is unlikely to win many Republican votes—will now become the central front of the congressional-executive war over Iran diplomacy.

Kirk, still pressing the stalled sanctions bill he introduced this winter with Bob Menendez, who never saw a hawkish GOP Iran bill he didn’t like, has proven himself a warmonger. Any Democrat or Republican who follows his lead will expose themselves, too—and should be held to account for it.

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on bidding good riddance to Bob Menendez

Good Riddance to Bob Menendez?

Bob Menendez

Senator Robert Menendez testifies on Capitol Hill in 2013 (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Yesterday, the Justice Department hit Democratic New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez with fourteen counts of corruption, including 8 bribery charges that alone could carry more than a century in prison. The indictment was based on Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and major donor. In exchange for a litany of gifts, including Caribbean resort stays, campaign cash and flights, according to the indictment, Menendez used his influence to benefit Melgen’s interests, extending to his businesses and even helping to get visas for “several of Melgen’s girlfriends.”

Menendez held a defiant press conference on Wednesday evening (before officially pleading not guilty today), declaring his innocence and, as he did when news of the imminent charges broke last month, telling reporters, “I am not going anywhere.” That may be true, in terms of Menendez’s Senate seat, but the Democratic hawk already gave up his powerful post as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (a position he hopes to retake when cleared of the charges).

Some of the media coverage of the charges suggested that Menendez’s departure from his leadership position would harm Democrats—but that’s not quite as clear as it seems. Indeed, in lamenting the Democrats’ loss, National Journal noted Menendez was able “to work with Republicans and has earned their respect through his occasional battles with the White House over foreign policy.” That hardly sounds like a leader of the caucus, but rather like a senator who has worked hand in hand with the most obstructionist critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

The constant efforts, in cahoots with Republicans, to constrain the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran, for instance, have divided Democrats bitterly. In January of 2014, Menendez, along with rapacious anti-Iran Senator Mark Kirk (Ill.), introduced a new sanctions bill backed by the powerful anti-diplomacy American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Critics said the bill would kill the interim agreement struck by Iran and world powers—the framework that just today bore fruit as negotiations toward a comprehensive pact advanced—leading to widespread opposition among the Democratic Senate leadership. When liberal grassroots groups rallied enough Democrats to sustain a promised presidential veto, the bill failed to come to a vote.

This year, Menendez introduced another sanctions measure with Kirk, but it too has so far stalled without the necessary Democratic support. He also sponsored a bill with Republican Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker to empower Congress to vote on any deal with Iran—earning another veto threat from Obama. And working with Republicans came back to bite Menendez when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell couldn’t restrain his partisan impulses and sought to bring the bill to a quick vote; even Menendez himself had to object.

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These are just a few examples of Menendez siding with AIPAC and its Republican stalwarts over the White House and a majority of Senate Democrats. At times, Menendez’s rhetoric has been harsh. He reportedly clashed directly with Obama at a Democratic congressional luncheon in January. Later that month, he berated administration officials defending diplomacy: “The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran,” he said. In a 2013 hearing, Menendez went after Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman over the administration’s policy on the exiled Iranian exile group the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a hawkish, cult-like outfit that pushes for regime change.

But Menendez’s strategy has paid off—literally. Menendez received more campaign contributions from the MEK and its allies than any other member of Congress, according to a study by Eli Clifton and me for our piece on their relationship in the Intercept. And during his 2012 re-election campaign, Menendez garnered more contributions from pro-Israel groups than any other senator, according to Open Secrets. This winter, the Israel lobby flagship gave Menendez a hero’s welcome. Today, AIPAC leaders and other pro-Israel donors are funding and bundling contributions for his legal defense.

So Menendez has a long record of taking money from donors and advocating the policies they support. No one—certainly not me—is suggesting that his work on behalf of groups like AIPAC and the MEK rises to the level of corruption. And, despite the neocon conspiracy theories, the charges aren’t retribution from Obama. But allegations that Menendez took money to do favors shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone. He is, after all, from New Jersey.

Read Next: Ali Gharib on the worst case for war with Iran you’ll read in a major newspaper

Republicans Loved Netanyahu’s Racist Election Tactics

John Boehner and Orrin Hatch applaud Benjamin Netanyahu as he speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on March 3, 2015 (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Almost 200 House Republicans are sending a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulating him on his victory in Israel’s snap election Tuesday. Netanyahu sailed to victory on the heels of two controversial late-campaign statements to rally his base: a warning, replete with George Wallace–esque shades of bigotry, that Palestinian citizens of Israel were “coming out in droves to the polls” and a vow that a Palestinian state would not be created on his watch.

In a spate of interviews with American news outlets, Netanyahu tried to walk back his remarks. Whatever one makes of his new Thursday position on a Palestinian state—a lot of people aren’t buying it—Netanyahu’s explanation of his bigoted warning about Arab voters left much to be desired: “I wasn’t trying to suppress a vote; I was trying to get out my vote,” he said.

Enter House Republicans. In the letter, which no Democrats have signed on to, Representative Ron DeSantis of Florida lauded Netanyahu’s victory and even his means of achieving it. “Your victory was no doubt hard-fought and well-earned,” the letter, first reported by the neoconservative news site Free Beacon, said. A hundred and ninety members of the House GOP signed on as of this morning.

The White House complained that the remark about Arab voters undermined the foundations of the US-Israel relationship. “These kinds of cynical, divisive election day tactics stand in direct conflict to… the values that are critical to the bond between our two countries,” said spokesperson Josh Earnest. Palestinian citizens of Israel make up roughly 20 percent of the Jewish state’s population.

DeSantis also complained in a separate statement released Wednesday alongside the letter that President Obama had not yet congratulated Netanyahu on his victory (though Netanyahu had himself taken two days to congratulate Obama on his 2012 re-election). On Thursday, Obama called Netanyahu to congratulate him, but added that the United States “will need to reassess our options following the prime minister’s new positions and comments regarding the two-state solution,” a White House official told Reuters—hinting at allowing possible action against Israel and toward a two-state solution in international fora, where the United States has heretofore exercised blanket opposition to measures targeting Israel.

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The DeSantis letter’s partisan nature underscores the closeness of Republicans and Netanyahu’s Likud party—a trend largely driven by the GOP and Likud themselves, as when Netanyahu effectively endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012. Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who engineered Netanyahu’s controversial Congress speech earlier this month with Netanyahu’s US ambassador (and former Republican operative) Ron Dermer, today announced plans to travel to Israel. The cozy relationship, it seems, extends to a fondness for racially charged electioneering tactics.

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on what Netanyahu’s victory means for America

What Netanyahu’s Victory Means for America

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2015. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

The American political class has spent decades convincing itself that the Israeli political class really does want a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last six years have been the hardest—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed a tepid desire for peace, but consistently acted contrary it—and yet the image of an Israel that would strike the deal if only this or that condition was met by the Palestinians persisted. Perhaps the image even grew stronger: who can forget all the standing ovations Netanyahu received during his 2009 address to Congress and, despite all the controversy, again this winter?

The illusion, however, of an Israeli body politic, perhaps even an Israeli electorate, happy to make peace was shattered as Netanyahu sailed to another victory—especially in light of the way he did it. Netanyahu’s last minute bid to strengthen his hand came not from fear-mongering about Iran, as he’d done for years, but about the Palestinians. His fired salvos at both Palestinian citizens of Israel (some 20 percent of the population) and against those Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In the former case, Netanyahu warned his base Arabs were “coming out in droves to the polls”; in the latter, he boldly declared that no Palestinian state would be birthed were he elected (something Netanyahu had been hinting at throughout the campaign).

The mantra of American Israel supporters, from grassroots lobby groups right up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, has always been that the United States and Israel hold “shared values”—chief among them the countries’ common democratic characters. But Netanyahu’s campaign put the lie to the notion. “Remember that Netanyahu’s version of democracy includes as few Arab voices as possible, simply because they are not Jewish,”wrote +972 Magazine’s Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man. “Remember that the peace processes he has overseen for decades were not genuine, that he never had any intention of ushering in, let alone seeking, a two-state solution.”

The problem for American policy-makers, with the illusion of “shared values” shattered, is that they have spent decades enabling Israel’s pursuit of its worst instincts. The US subsidizes about a fifth of Israel’s defense budget—the largest American foreign aid package—to help the country defend itself as it pursues peace, not for it to hold the Occupied Territories in perpetuity and create, as many Israeli officials have put it, a de jure Apartheid state where half the people under its control get no vote. The United States gives Israel diplomatic cover in international fora to prevent the Jewish state from being unfairly targeted and maligned, not to avoid criticisms of a state deserving of censure. How can we keep graciously offering these benefits to Israel if it has so blatantly defied its own claims—and ours—of being a strong, if flawed, democracy?

The answer is twofold, though both aspects are connected: one is the inertial strength of the Israel lobby and the other is its favorite party, the Republicans. The lobby has faltered in recent years, losing out at key points in the Iran diplomacy fight, for instance, but lobby groups’ aggressive policing of politics and media will continue apace, and can still bite those who transgress it as well as lavish benefit on those who proclaim their fealty. The lobby’s biggest problem is that those quarters of American politics in lock step with its aims are increasingly falling squarely in the Republican camp. Think of the Jerusalem platform fight at the 2012 Democratic National Convention or, again, the Iran issue, particularly the continuing partisan efforts to kill nuclear talks and the GOP invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran.

Republicans, too, have professed a desire to see a two-state solution, but they were nonetheless quick to congratulate their political ally Netanyahu on his victory (GOP hypocrisy is nothing new). That leaves it to the Democrats and their leader for the next two years, President Barack Obama, to take a stand. The signs are heartening, even from Congress: 56 members boycotted Netanyahu’s address earlier this month, and so far a critical mass of Democrats haven’t signed onto measures designed to kill negotiations with Iran. The administration, meanwhile, expressed concern over Netanyahu’s election tactics and vowed to “evaluate [its] position going forward” on the peace process, such that it is.

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But the administration’s criticisms leave room for ambiguity: Will there be any more concrete consequences for Israel in light of its newly clarified intransigence on peace? It’s doubtful, but with the free hand of a second term president, Obama could let a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements pass instead of vetoing it or, better yet, give the Palestinian Authority support in its efforts to join international organizations (so far, the Obama administration has resisted both these moves). The shibboleth of the so-called special relationship between Israel and America—the generous military aid to a wealthy country—should be the first thing to go, but will probably be the last.

So not much is likely to happen. In a way, it makes perfect sense. Netanyahu’s remarks during the campaign didn’t totally re-order how any half-witted observer of Israeli politics views the Prime Minister. He’s been acting this way for years and has now, belatedly, added word to deed. If America wasn’t willing to face up to these realities before, why should it now? Israel’s ardent defenders will no doubt dismiss Netanyahu’s comments and call for keeping up the status quo. But at this moment another step has been taken for Americans coming to realize what the status quo is: a belligerent American client state willfully careening towards apartheid with our help, trying, along the way, to drag us into disastrous conflicts in the region. It’s a small step, but for the principled American liberals increasingly fed up with Israel, this march is slow and steady.

Read Next: Ali Gharib on the worst case for war with Iran you’ll read in a major newspaper

The Worst Case for War With Iran You’ll Read in a Major Newspaper

The Washington Post

(AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

Many opponents of a nuclear deal with Iran simply won’t come out and say what they seem to be constantly getting at: that the United States should go to war. Well, kudos to the hawkish opinion pages of The Washington Post and the neoconservative scholar Joshua Muravchik for making just that argument in Sunday’s paper. Muravchik purports to explain how negotiations will never work with a regime like Iran’s (“akin to communist, fascist and Nazi regimes”), and that attacking is the only way to forestall an Iranian nuclear bomb. It’s good to see some of these anti-diplomacy hawks have the courage of their convictions.

There are other reasons to welcome Muravchik’s salvo, too. It makes the case for war, yes, but that case comes off as so laughably weak that one wonders how anyone not already ideologically committed to the notion could be swayed into supporting it. That makes the particulars of Muravchik’s argument worth delving into.

But first a word on the man. A fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Muravchik has the biography of a neoconservative archetype, moving left to right through socialist youth groups, the Scoop Jacksonite Coalition for a Democratic Majority, then finally into full-blown neoconservatism. His current and former affiliations, accordingly, read like neocon alphabet soup, including groups like AEI, WINEP, PNAC and JINSA, among others.

And this isn’t Muravchik’s first rodeo. A board member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, he aggressively pushed war there after 9/11. Since at least as far back as 2006, he’s periodically called for war with Iran. At the end of that year—as Iraq spiraled into its bloodiest period of chaos—Muravchik published two opinion pieces, one in the Los Angeles Times that began with the breathless declaration, “We must bomb Iran.” The headline was half as long: “Bomb Iran.” He repeated the call in, at least, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2014.

The latest reprise of Muravchik’s monomaniacal aim, in the Washington Post, carried a bit of a different title: “War with Iran is probably our best option.” Probably? So we—with Muravchik, it’s always “we,” the collected national mass to be dragged along into his follies—ought to go down this path again because he’s pretty sure it’s best for us! War is supposed to be a last resort; that doesn’t mean it’s “probably our best option,” but that it’s our only one. (In 2011, in a USA Today op-ed calling for—you guessed it!—war with Iran, Muravchik concluded that “force should always be a last resort, but perfect certainty that nothing else will work only comes when it’s too late.”)

Maybe Muravchik didn’t write the Post headline, but the uncertainty over outcomes pervades his piece. “What if force is the only way to block Iran from gaining nuclear weapons?” he asks, before answering, “That, in fact, is probably the reality.” That, in fact, is probably not true. Other analysts with far fewer flops in their records think our attacking could spur Iran to take a decision toward building a bomb (something, contra Muravchik, they haven’t done, according to American and Israeli intelligence).

An Iranian decision to produce a weapon would be especially dangerous because attacking can’t actually “block Iran.” Rather, the best possible outcome of airstrikes is to set Iran’s nuclear program back a few years. Muravchik’s response to this is as simple as it is scary: just keep bombing. “[W]e can strike as often as necessary,” he wrote. The Israelis call this “mowing the lawn”—an anodyne euphemism for perpetual war.

Note Muravchik’s use of the word “perhaps” along the same lines that “probably” appears in his headline and in four places in the body of the article: meek statements declaring, Hey, maybe this’ll work! Here’s another instance of “perhaps”:

Wouldn’t an attack cause ordinary Iranians to rally behind the regime? Perhaps, but military losses have also served to undermine regimes, including the Greek and Argentine juntas, the Russian czar and the Russian communists.

Setting aside that Muravchik is already declaring victory, reaching back to the Russian czar shows how bankrupt this argument is. As Georgetown and Harvard’s Ariane Tabatabai pointed out, one need only look to the 1980s, when the Islamic Republic solidified its shaky grip on Iran with the help of a bloody war started by Saddam Hussein. A proud peoples, Iranians rallied around their flag. “The Iranian people—including myself—will resist any military action,” the Nobel laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, hardly a pro-regime stalwart, said in 2010 of the prospect of a Western attack.

Muravchik has been admittedly wrong about this sort of thing before. In a shallow 2006 reflection about the Iraq war, he wrote that neoconservatives, himself included, “were glib about how Iraqis would greet liberation.” No shit. But don’t let that stop you now.

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For all their preening about democracy and freedom, Muravchik and his ilk must ignore the Iranian democracy and human rights activists who lay their asses on the line and oppose war. Indeed, he ignores altogether the consequences of an attack on Iranians. But he does at least address the potential for adverse effects on Americans:

And finally, wouldn’t Iran retaliate by using its own forces or proxies to attack Americans—as it has done in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia—with new ferocity? Probably. […W]e might absorb some strikes.

“Probably…might.” Sigh. We’re talking about dead Americans here.

What’s most remarkable about Muravchik’s case is that, despite making if for nigh on a decade, the Post chose to publish it at this moment. The United States and Iran are reportedly on the cusp of an agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Muravchik’s arguments are weaker and less confident than in 2006, when diplomacy was falling flat.

That itself is telling: this is not a scholar responding to events of the day, but rather one retro-fitting his long-held predispositions onto them—the definition of an ideologue. It shows what a small clique of even quasi-respectable analysts the poor Washington Post opinion editors have to draw on to make these sorts of inane arguments. If this is the best the hawkish paper and its neoconservative allies can muster, maybe we will be okay after all.

Read Next: Ali Gharib on Tom Cotton: The senator behind the Republicans’ letter to Iran

Meet Tom Cotton, the Senator Behind the Republicans’ Letter to Iran

Senator Tom Cotton

Senator Tom Cotton (Reuters/Laura Downing)

This weekend, freshman Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas spearheaded a completely innocent effort to let Iran know that, basically, the Senate GOP would fight any nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic even after it was signed. That, at least, was the implicit threat in the open letter Cotton wrote; the explicit one was that any future president could easily undo such an accord.

Except Cotton, a Harvard-educated lawyer, got his US Constitution wrong (an “embarrassing” error, wrote one Harvard law professor and former George W. Bush administration lawyer) and failed to even mention that his threat to withdraw from an agreement would be a violation of international law—something Iran’s foreign minister, in an epic bit of trolling, brought to his attention.

None of that, though, stopped forty-six other GOP senators from signing onto the letter—including the party’s full leadership slate in the upper chamber! (Notably, Foreign Relations chair Bob Corker of Tennessee, who co-authored the bill to get congressional say-so on a deal, stayed off.) So who is this freshman senator leading his party around by the nose with factually challenged and bellicose pronouncements?

At first blush, Cotton is quite an accomplished figure. Born in Arkansas in 1977, Cotton went to Harvard, where he wrote for the school paper and joined the Republican Club, before graduating from the law school there. Then he joined the army and became an officer, deploying to Iraq in 2006 and earning decorations along the way.

His army service was no doubt a noble pursuit, but it was during this time that Cotton’s particular brand of politics began to shine through a little bit. From Iraq, Cotton published an open letter—apparently he’s a fan of the format—in the right-wing blog Power Line calling for two journalists and the then–executive editor of The New York Times to be jailed and prosecuted for publishing an investigative piece about how the United States tracks terrorist finances. (Jim Lobe pointed out yesterday that those who would defend Cotton’s latest open letter to the Iranians on free-speech grounds may want to check this episode out first.)

The Power Line item made a big splash, and, according to The Atlantic, he struck up a correspondence with neocon don Bill Kristol. When Cotton returned for a stateside army posting, the pair "met frequently over drinks and dinner at Washington’s downtown Mayflower Hotel." Again to his credit, Cotton volunteered for another combat tour, this time in Afghanistan, eventually attaining the rank of captain. Then Cotton returned stateside again as a civilian and clerked for a judge.

When Cotton entered politics in 2012, winning a House seat representing his native Arkansas, things again started to turn a little bit hawkish, then a little bit unreasonable. (The Atlantic characterized his domestic record in the House as “conservative absolutism,” as he voted, for instance, against emergency disaster relief.)

The hawkishness was, initially, pro-forma: in an interview after the election but before taking his seat, Cotton told the neoconservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, “There are evil people in the world who would do evil things.” He added that Iran was gaining influence and “It’s important to remind the American people why we’re still engaged [militarily].” Rubin, who has herself advocated attacking Iran for years, lauded Cotton as a potential ideological replacement for the Democratic hawk Joseph Lieberman.

Once in the House, Cotton’s anti-Iran advocacy showed a mean streak. When, in 2013, a new Iran sanctions bill came before the lower chamber, Cotton introduced an amendment that would “automatically” punish family members of sanctions violators. “There would be no investigation,” Cotton explained during the mark-up. “It’d be very hard to demonstrate and investigate to conclusive proof.” Cotton wanted to punish innocent people; he called it “corruption of blood,” and extended the category to include “parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids.”

After some debate, Cotton withdrew the amendment. But it had earned him some attention among Iran hawks. Kristol, the neocon star-maker and founder of The Weekly Standard, which had pushed Cotton’s political career from the get-go, decided to put his money where his mouth is. When Cotton ran for a Senate seat last year, Kristol’s far-right pressure group, the Emergency Committee For Israel, threw almost a million dollars into his race.

Cotton won, and Kristol and company immediately started getting their money’s worth. In December, at a forum hosted by Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative (another pressure group modeled on the Project For a New American Century that pushed the Iraq War), Cotton said that the United States should allow the sale to Israel of the bombers and advanced bombs it would need to make an attack on Iran more feasible. In February, at the CPAC summit, he reportedly called for not just regime change in Tehran, but "replacement with a pro-Western regime." The New Republic’s David Ramsey remarked that, on almost any foreign policy issue, “Cotton can be found at the hawkish outer edge of the debate.”

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Most Iran hawks in Congress pushing sanctions measure that would effectively end nuclear talks insist they’re only trying to strengthen President Obama’s hand in negotiations. But Cotton, to his credit, has been much more blunt about his Bill Kristol–esque aims: to end talks and foreclose any possibility of a deal. In January, Cotton told a Heritage Foundation conference (my emphasis):

The United States must cease all appeasement, conciliation and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But, the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.

This week, Cotton launched his letter, earning forceful pushback from Democrats and hesitant criticisms from those Republicans not foolish enough to sign on. That hasn’t stopped Cotton from using Twitter to promote all the deeply flawed defenses of the letter he’s been making on cable news networks—and Bill Kristol is damned pleased. And the Intercept’s Lee Fang reported today that Cotton will appear tomorrow at an event hosted by a defense industry lobbying association—an audience sure to be receptive to his über-hawkishness, a boon to their bottom lines

Despite the myriad criticisms, it seems Tom Cotton is exactly where he wants to be.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include Cotton's initial contacts with Bill Kristol and his February call for regime change in Iran.

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on Bob Menendez’s corruption charges

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