Tom Cotton pushes for conflict with Iran despite unanswered questions on tanker attack

Tom Cotton is ready to get his war on.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) isn’t interested in waiting for clearer answers about the confusing details and conflicting accounts of what happened to a pair of tanker vessels in the Gulf of Oman this week.

According to Cotton’s watch, it’s time to attack Iran.

“Iran for 40 years has engaged in these kinds of attacks, going back to the 1980s, and in fact Ronald Reagan had to re-flag a lot of vessels going through the Persian Gulf and ultimately take military action against Iran in 1988,” Cotton said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. “These unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike.”

The comments should come as no surprise. Cotton’s watch broke on “attack Iran day” years ago and he’s never replaced it. The bellicose senator has long been eager to see American weapons blow up parts of the country his interventionist predecessors targeted for a coup almost seventy years ago. And he is far from alone in leaping at the latest tanker explosions as vindication of a conclusion he’d already arrived at long before they occurred.


But the very alacrity with which Cotton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and President Donald Trump have moved to assert that Iran is definitively behind the tanker incidents should be reason for others to pump the brakes. And experts outside the administration have reservations about the conclusive way this information is being portrayed — not least because there are multiple other international actors who might love to trick the U.S. into attacking Iran.

“There are at least three other countries that have the capacity and certainly the motive to frame Iran, or if not to frame Iran at least to exacerbate further tensions with Iran and between Iran and the US,” former CIA officer and Center for Security Studies fellow Paul Pillar told the BBC on Saturday. “I’m referring specifically to Iran’s cross-Gulf rivals, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and certainly Israel as well. All of those governments have an incentive to keep Iran ostracized, punished, loathed, and to preclude anything that could look like a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.”

In the same interview, Pillar agreed that Iran is the likeliest culprit for the tanker damage, but said the evidence put forth so far “don’t…add up to a conclusive case.”

The night-vision footage released by the U.S. shows a vessel consistent with some of those used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It seems to show people aboard that small ship removing some sort of object from the hull of the Kokuka Courageous. But the U.S. assertions that the ship and crew were Iranian military, and that the object was a limpet mine, require at least modest leaps beyond what the publicly available intelligence has proven.

The head of the company that runs the Kokuka Courageous has said his ship was not damaged by a static explosive device such as a limpet mine but rather was struck by a missile or torpedo.


Pompeo himself has been somewhat more circumspect about leveling accusations at Iran, as National Iranian American Council founder and foreign policy commentator Trita Parsi noted in a column for NBC News. Pompeo attributes the view that Iran definitely attacked the Kokuka this week to a “government assessment” rather than to the intelligence community specifically, Parsi observed. And the Secretary of State’s continued assertion that tanker damage incidents earlier this spring were consistent with Iranian military activity remains dubious at best, with some security experts arguing those explosions were inconsistent with the kinds of attacks they’ve seen on such vessels in their careers.

Iran and U.S. officials have also made conflicting claims over who rescued the forty-odd sailors aboard the two tankers damaged this week. Taken together, the details and lingering questions suggest that it’s unwise to make definitive statements about what was done, by whom, and to what end.

Cotton has never subscribed to such cautious deliberation when it comes to attacking Iran. His comments Sunday were consistent with the longstanding fascination among right-wing hawks — most prominently John Bolton, who now holds a key White House post and has shown himself willing to massage and manipulate intelligence reports in service of war agendas in the past — have held with renewing open military conflict with Iran.

“We can make a military response in a time and a manner of our choosing,” Cotton said, “but yes, unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The war-drums set will need to do better than this to get their way with the international community that would inevitably be dragged into such a conflict. As Pillar noted to the BBC, this particular president faces a substantially higher bar to legitimating use of American military force.

“Let’s be honest, the Trump administration has a real credibility problem, particularly with regard to the president himself, who is, to put it bluntly, a serial liar,” Pillar said. “I think it would be very difficult for the U.S. government, with its own output of videos or statements, to produce something that would be sufficient to persuade the rest of the world as to what happened.”