Tom Cotton

Tom Cotton, the man behind the explosive Iran letter

U.S Sen. Tom Cotton

U.S Sen. Tom Cotton

A letter signed by 47 Senate Democrats warning Iranian leaders that the next president could simply toss out any nuclear deal that Congress doesn’t approve represented a loud shot across the bow of both American and Iranian nuclear negotiators.

It also represented a kind of Senate coming-out party for Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Mr. Cotton is a freshman senator who took his seat a mere nine weeks ago. Yet he is the one who drafted the controversial letter that was released Monday and then circulated it, seeking signatures from every one of his Republican colleagues—and to some Democrats he thought might share his low opinion of the nuclear deal being negotiated. (None of those Democrats took up the offer to sign a letter that left the Democratic president and White House steaming. Seven Republicans also didn’t sign.)

“I’ve been working the phones a lot the last seven days,” Sen. Cotton said in an interview.

Sen. Cotton insists the purpose of the letter was merely to educate Iranian leaders about the workings of the American political system and the dangers of agreeing to a deal that isn’t sent to Congress for approval. But he also says flatly that the deal being negotiated in an attempt to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon is “certainly not acceptable to me and not to many other members,” because it would allow some continuation of Iranian enrichment of uranium and because it would begin to phase out after a decade or so.

The letter exposed Sen. Cotton to immediate criticism. Some saw it as an attack on presidential authority and its tone as condescending to Iran’s leaders. Its opening line reads: “It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system.” Yet Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, foreign minister Javad Zarif, holds three degrees from American universities, including a Ph.D. from the University of Denver. And by one count, six members of the Iranian cabinet have degrees from American universities.

Vice President Joe Biden, a former senator, said the letter was “expressly designed to undercut a sitting President in the midst of sensitive international negotiations” and “beneath the dignity of an institution I revere.” For his part, President Barack Obama asserted that those who signed the letter are “wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran,” who also don’t want a nuclear deal to be completed.

Asked about that comment, Sen. Cotton replied: “There are nothing but hardliners in Iran. Iran has been killing Americans for years.”

Whatever the letter’s ripple effects, it certainly won’t represent the last Washington will hear from Tom Cotton foreign policy. He is a 37-year-old Army veteran who, after graduating from Harvard University and a brief law career, enlisted and served a tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He was elected to the House in 2012 and then, last year, defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor to move to the Senate.

His party’s leaders see him as an emerging voice on national security; one indication was their decision to place him immediately on the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees. Within weeks of his victory last November, he was delivering the weekly Republican radio address—a Thanksgiving address that included a tribute to troops serving around the world.

This article was written by Gerald F. Seib for The Wall Street Journal on March 10, 2015. You can also find him here @GeraldFSeib