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Cotton 'Willing' to Give Administration, Allies More Than 60 Days to Try for 'Better' Iran Deal

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WASHINGTON – Should the Trump administration decertify the Iran nuclear deal, as expected, the U.S. should wait to reimpose sanctions against the Iranian regime to allow negotiation for a tougher deal, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said.

Iran agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015 with promises to significantly curb operations at its nuclear facilities in return for the lifting of international oil and banking sanctions. President Trump during his campaign harshly criticized the deal, calling it a national security threat.

Politico reported this week that Trump’s national security steam has unanimously agreed to decertify the deal. That move would only impact U.S. law, and would not mean an immediate withdrawal from the deal, which the Obama administration regarded as one of its cornerstone achievements. Instead, decertification would give Congress a 60-day window to decide whether to re-apply the sanctions the Obama administration waived. The deadline for certification is Oct. 15, and Iranian leadership has signaled that it has no plans of renegotiating the deal.

“I have no intention right now to introduce snapback sanctions legislation on Oct. 16,” Cotton said Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Affairs. “That 60-day window is a relatively short period in which we can do what we already have the power to do, which is impose sanctions at any time.”

Sixty days might not be long enough to conduct “coercive diplomacy,” the Arkansas lawmaker continued, and if it’s obvious by the end of that timeframe that a new deal is not possible, then sanctions might be a wise decision.

“But I’m also willing to give the administration and our allies in Europe and the Middle East more time than just 60 days to try to get a better deal,” Cotton said.

Defenders of the nuclear deal have said that it has allowed the U.S. to gain significant intelligence information on Iran’s nuclear operations, findings that wouldn’t have been possible without the agreement. Cotton, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that he’s not personally aware of any “substantial new intelligence that we have obtained under the nuclear deal.”

The deal’s chief negotiator Wendy Sherman, who served as undersecretary of State for political affairs from 2011 to 2015, said in May that the nuclear deal carried important safeguards, including intrusive monitoring, strict limitations on nuclear stockpiles and centrifuge production and an extension on nuclear breakout time, or the amount of time it would take Iran to accumulate enough material for a nuclear weapon.

Cotton cited experts who have said that Iran could be two to six months away from nuclear breakout by 2023. He also pointed to comments from President Obama, who said that in 13 to 15 years after the deal Iranians could “have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”

“One thing I learned in the Army is that when your opponent is on his knees, you drive him to the ground and choke him out. But President Obama extended a hand and helped the ayatollahs up,” Cotton said. “The deal didn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paved that path.”

Cotton argued that Iran has boldly ignored requirements included in the nuclear deal, and has a long history of relentless pursuit of nuclear capability. He noted that Iran hid an underground enrichment facility near Natanz that was revealed in 2002, and another facility in Fordow that was uncovered in 2009.

“I must observe that peaceful, civilian nuclear-power facilities don’t tend to be buried underground with several feet of reinforced concrete or under mountains,” Cotton said.