Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan that he supported retaliatory strikes against Iran after reports suggest that Iran led attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. Cotton has been an outspoken critic of Iranian leadership during his term in the U.S. Senate.
The following is a transcript of the Cotton interview.
Margaret Brennan: You have long been defined as a hawk on Iran. You see these recent attacks, these are commercial vessels not military installations. What kind of response is warranted?
Senator Cotton: Well, Iran for 40 years has engaged in these kinds of attacks going back to the 1980s. In fact, Ronald Reagan had to reflag a lot of vessels going through the Persian Gulf and ultimately take military action against Iran in 1988. These unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike.
Margaret Brennan: Are you — you’re comparing the tanker war in the 80s to now and saying that that’s the kind of military response you want to see?
Senator Cotton: We can make a military response in a time and in a manner of our choosing. But yes, unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Margaret Brennan: A retaliatory strike? When we had Secretary Pompeo on just a few moments ago, he said the U.S. always has the authorization to defend American interests. As someone who sits in Congress, do you believe that he can act—the administration can act without coming to Congress first?
Senator Cotton: Yes, Margaret. Going back to President Washington and all the way down to President Trump, the fastest way to get the fire and fury of the U.S. military unleashed on you is to interfere with the freedom of navigation on the open seas and in the air. That’s exactly what Iran is doing in one of the world’s most important strategic choke points. The president has the authorization to act to defend American interests.
Certainly, it would be in keeping with what President Obama did unwisely in Libya in 2011 in launching a weeks long campaign to overthrow the government there. What I’m talking about is not like what we’ve seen in Iraq for the last 16 years or Afghanistan for the last 18 years. But retaliatory military strikes against Iran that make it clear we will not tolerate any kind of attacks on commercial shipping on the open seas.
Margaret Brennan: So you believe that the existing authorization for military force is sufficient? You’ve also said, though, and as someone who served in Iraq, you have an appreciation for the need to be careful in parsing intelligence and in first reports. How do you convince the American people that they need to stomach something, in terms of a potential strike, that you’re describing as somewhat easy to carry out, when there were such vast underestimations of what U.S. force would bring about in Iraq and elsewhere in the past?
Senator Cotton: Margaret, those are two very different things. In 2002, our intelligence agencies, just like every Western intelligence agency, was trying to assess the state of a weapons of mass destruction program, one of the things that states work the hardest to keep secret. There’s really not much to assess right here.
Everybody can see with their own two eyes, those Iranian sailors going up to a ship and taking a mine off of it. Iranian sailors, ultimately boarded and took hostage the crew of one of those ships that they just released yesterday. They tried to shoot down one of our surveillance aircraft over the Persian Gulf as we were simply trying to monitor what had happened there.
As you heard Secretary Pompeo have said, they’ve increased their support on attacks on American troops by supporting a Taliban attack in Afghanistan, just like they killed five hundred Americans in the Iraq war. So there’s no doubt here what Iran is up to. They are struggling under the sanctions that we have placed on them. The status quo for them is unacceptable.
They’re hoping that they can drive up the price of oil and therefore benefit from it, since their oil exports have declined so much. And also, get more pressure put on the United States to back off our campaign of maximum pressure. That’s not going to happen. If anything, we need to increase that pressure and I think this unprovoked attack on commercial shipping warrants retaliatory military strikes.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mahony, who is challenging Cotton in his 2020 re-election bid, called on Cotton to stop pushing for war and start focusing on the needs of Arkansas.
“If Tom wanted healthcare and higher wages for Arkansans as much as he wants another bloody, costly war, then he’d be a pretty good senator. But he doesn’t, and he isn’t,” Mahony said. “It’s a shame that someone who should know better is so eager to drag the United States into another war in the Middle East.”
“I would never hesitate to vote to defend this nation, but there is no way in hell we should be sending our men and women to fight another war in some desert just because people like Tom Cotton are worried about their poll numbers,” Mahony said. “You would think during all those years at Harvard that Tom must’ve read about the Gulf of Tonkin at least once.”