Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) on Tuesday answered a hostile question about his criticism of the Iran nuclear deal by arguing that Tehran is building strength and could become a "lawful, legitimate nuclear power" through the agreement in 10-15 years.
Cotton's response came during a question-and-answer session after an evening address he delivered before the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he said President Donald Trump should deny certification of the Iran nuclear accord when it comes up for renewal later this month.
Physicist Peter Zimmerman told Cotton that he doubted Iran could conceal its nuclear program "in a space under roof the size of a football field" and that the Islamic Republic is a "defeated" enemy, leading Cotton to fire back at both claims.
"The problem with your premise there is that Iran was not defeated in 2013," Cotton responded. "Iran was wounded by our sanctions but they obviously were not defeated, since they got $100 billion."
Zimmerman argued that Cotton and the U.S. should show mercy to Iran and seek to help the country.
"American practice is when you have a defeated enemy on his knees, you accept surrender and offer mercy," Zimmerman said. "You don't smash him to the ground."
Cotton did not agree that Iran warranted such treatment.
"I said when they are on their knees, you drive them to the ground and choke them out," Cotton said. "If they're on their knees and surrender, then you accept their surrender. So we can quibble about semantics here but your fundamental point is wrong."
"Iran was not defeated in 2013," Cotton added. "If they were defeated in 2013, how did they seize one of our naval vessels and hold 10 American sailors hostage last year? How are they building missile factories on the border of Israel? How are they providing missiles to Houthi rebels that hold a large percentage of the world's commerce at risk in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or that can strike Jeddah and Riyadh?"
"It's an interesting point you make, but it is fundamentally wrong," Cotton continued. "Nor did I say you can build the entire nuclear infrastructure in a facility the size of a football field. You can build much of it."
Cotton then shifted his response to discuss the deal's so-called sunset provisions, which lift key restrictions on Iran's nuclear program over the next decade that, Cotton fears, would clear Iran's path to a nuclear bomb.
"Let's say they don't have a covert program for the first time in a generation," Cotton said. "I will ask you: What are we going to do in 2025 and 2030?"
"Because they can obey the deal, they can obey every single item of the deal," Cotton continued. "They can even let the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] come into all the facilities they are currently denying access to, and in the second half of the last decade, we will have made Iran a lawful, legitimate, nuclear power, with catastrophic effects for the United States and our allies in the region."
Former President Barack Obama's administration negotiated the deal, which offered sanctions relief to the Iranians in exchange for curbs to Iran's nuclear program. The agreement's defenders are trying to stave off criticism and prevent Trump from decertifying it. Other national security experts have urged Trump to withdraw from the deal.