When a Man's fancy gets astride on his Reason;
When Imagination is at Cuffs with the Senses; and
common Understanding, as well as common Sense,
is Kickt out of Doors; the first Proselyte he makes,
-- Jonathan Swift, 1704
As near as I can determine, Sen. Tom Cotton's biggest worry about Iran is that its government is as bellicose and fanatical as he is.
The good news is that, based on the Islamic Republic's response to the condescending, adolescent tone of the "open letter" he and 46 Republican senators addressed to Iran's leaders, that seems unlikely. Judging by their measured responses, Iranian politicians appear to understand that they weren't its real audience.
Rather, it was a grandstand play directed at Cotton's own constituents among the GOP's unappeasable Tea Party base. Its actual purpose was to express contempt and defiance toward President Obama, always popular among the Fox News white bread demographic -- basically the same motive that led Cotton to repeat Obama's name 74 times during a 2014 election debate with Sen. Mark Pryor.
That big doodyhead Barack Obama's not the boss of them.
Except that, particularly with regard to foreign policy, he is. But hold that thought.
Javad Zarif, the American-educated Iranian Foreign Minister involved in intense negotiations with Secretary of State John Kerry, observed that the senators' letter has "no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy."
The Persian diplomat pointed out that the agreement is not being hashed out between the U.S. and Iran, but also among Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Any deal would be put before the U.N. Security Council and have the force of international law.
A future U.S. president could renounce it, but at significant political cost unless Iran clearly violated its terms.
Slate.com's Fred Kaplan points out that chief executives from FDR and Reagan to George W. Bush have negotiated arms control deals in ports of call from Yalta to Helsinki. "In other words," Kaplan writes, "contrary to the letter writers, Congress has no legal or constitutional role in the drafting, approval, or modification of this deal."
Presidents negotiate arms agreements, not raw-carrot freshman senators.
Iran's crafty old "Supreme Leader" Ayahtollah Khamenei lamented "the decay of political ethics in the American system," but added that he stood by the process. "Every time we reach a stage where the end of the negotiations is in sight," Khamenei said, "the tone of the other side, specifically the Americans, becomes harsher, coarser and tougher."
Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus reported the score: "Qom Theological Seminary 1, Harvard Law 0. When an ayatollah sounds more statesmanlike than the U.S. Senate, it's not a good sign."
Bargaining is practically the Persian national sport. They're inclined to see a my-way-or-the-highway type like Tom Cotton as unserious and immature.
As if to confirm that impression, the Arkansas senator took his newfound notoriety to CBS's "Face the Nation," where he complained about Iran's growing "empire."
"They already control Tehran, increasingly they control Damascus and Beirut and Baghdad and now Sana'a as well," Cotton said. "They do all that without a nuclear weapon. Imagine what they would do with a nuclear weapon."
You read that correctly. Arkansas' brilliant Harvard Law graduate complained about Iran's control of Tehran -- the nation's capital since 1796.
As for Iran's alleged "control" of Baghdad, you'd think an Iraq veteran like Cotton would have some clue how that came about. Hint: President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. The Bush administration deposed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of neighboring Iran led to an 8-year war in which roughly a million people were killed. They installed as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite nationalist who'd spent 24 years exiled in, yes, Iran.
How Iranian-armed Shiite militias came to be leading the fight against ISIS terrorists west of Baghdad is that the Iraqi government begged for their help. It's in Tehran's interest to defeat ISIS even more than in Washington's. Can this possibly be news to Cotton?
Probably not, but he can count on his constituents' ignorance. It would be astonishing if 20 percent of Arkansas voters could locate Iran on a world map, much less grasp that if Iran looks stronger, it's because the U.S. keeps attacking its enemies.
"Like all the Iran hawks before him," Daniel Larison writes in American Conservative, "Cotton claims to fear growing Iranian influence while supporting policies that have facilitated its growth."
For President Obama, a verifiable agreement preventing the Iranian regime from developing nuclear weapons they say they don't want could be a diplomatic triumph, re-shaping the entire Middle East without firing a shot.
To the War Party, that would be a bad thing. Meanwhile, Tom Cotton gave his first speech in the U.S. Senate, prating about "global military dominance" and "hegemonic strength" like the villain in a James Bond movie.
It was a performance calculated to make him a star.