In a move that should surprise no one by this time, Cotton led a group of 47 Republican senators who signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran warning that any nuclear deal they sign with President Obama will be in effect only as long as he is in office. The letter makes the point that without Congressional approval, any agreement reached with this administration is “a mere an executive agreement” that will expire with this presidency and can be revoked by the incoming administration and is also subject to modification by a future congress.
As Politifact reported on Monday, Cotton appeared on Fox News on March 9, 2015, shortly after the news of his letter broke, and offered the following in support of the letter:
We don’t know what the final terms of the deal are. But we know so far that Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser, has already conceded that Iran will have a robust uranium enrichment capability. The president has said this bill will have a sunset, perhaps as little as 10 years (from now). Those two terms alone make this deal unacceptable.
Politifact goes on to note that this comment raises two questions:
- Did Rice literally say what Cotton said she did?
- Is what Rice said functionally equivalent to what Cotton claimed?
Politifact made two attempts to get a clarification on the senator’s statement, but their inquiries were not returned. Politifact does note that they “found a quote by Rice that seems to be the one Cotton is referencing; it attracted attention in both the conservative and mainstream media.”
The remarks were made during a speech Rice made on March 2 to a convention of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and were as follows:
We cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal. I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forego its domestic enrichment capacity entirely. But, as desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic nor achievable. Even our closest international partners in the P5+1 (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) do not support denying Iran the ability ever to pursue peaceful nuclear energy. If that is our goal, our partners will abandon us, undermining the sanctions we have imposed so effectively together. Simply put, that is not a viable negotiating position. Nor is it even attainable. The plain fact is, no one can make Iran unlearn the scientific and nuclear expertise it already possesses.
Did Rice literally say what Cotton said she did?
Clearly, one can see from the quote above that Rice did not use the word “robust” to describe Iran’s nuclear program.
Politifact goes on to explain that “Two arms-control experts agreed that Cotton was taking liberties with Rice’s words.”
Richard Nephew, the program director for economic statecraft, sanctions and energy markets at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy told Politifact that:
I think Cotton exaggerated what Rice said. “Robust'”has a connotation that, to me, means more than just a capability. I use the term “robust” to mean “healthy” or “strong.” What exactly that means probably depends on the eye of the beholder, but to me, “robust” evokes some real weight, which isn’t what Rice said.
Matthew Bunn, an arms-control specialist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the White House told PolitiFact that Cotton embellished Rice’s words. According to National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan:
Our goal is to effectively shut down the four pathways to fissile material for a nuclear weapon: uranium enrichment at Natanz; uranium enrichment at Fordow; the plutonium pathway; and the possibility of a covert pathway. We seek to do this by extending Iran’s breakout time to at least one year – which is significantly longer than what experts have publicly estimated is Iran’s current breakout time of approximately two to three months.
Is what Rice said functionally equivalent to what Cotton claimed?
Politifact begins their analysis by noting that:
Rice argued in her speech that it’s unrealistic to expect diplomacy to reduce Iran’s enrichment capability to zero. But do nuclear experts believe that any amount of enrichment capability greater than zero is inherently “robust”? Or is there a sweet spot between “zero” and “robust” in which Iran’s potential nuclear-bomb ambitions would be weakened to the point of inefficacy?
The experts we checked with said there probably is such a sweet spot, but they cautioned that it’s hard to know for sure.
Looking at the question, Politifact concludes their analysis, reporting that “Ultimately, there are too many unknowns to say with any certainty how ‘robust’ Iran’s enrichment capability would be — starting with the fact that the negotiations are still ongoing, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.” According to Albright:
The meaning of “robust” is in the eye of the beholder. But knowing for sure who is right depends on knowing how much nuclear infrastructure will remain and what are the limits on its operation. We cannot know that for sure until we see a deal.
Politifact goes on to conclude that Cotton’s statement was “mostly false,” noting that Cotton “essentially puts words in Rice’s mouth when he says she ‘conceded’ that Iran will keep a ‘robust’ enrichment capability.”
Meanwhile, what she did say — that zero enrichment capability, “as desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic nor achievable” — may or may not lead to Cotton’s conclusion that Iran will be left with a “robust” capability. Experts expect that there is a point between “zero” and “robust” where Iran’s nuclear ambitions are hampered, but there are too many variables and too much uncertainty to say so with certainty.
Considering the information above, Liberals Unite concludes that Cotton was, in fact, caught lying about Rice’s statement about Iran. Rice did not use the word “robust” to describe Iran’s nuclear program and Cotton’s interpretation of her words was not reasonable, as supported by the experts cited by Politifact.