Tom Cotton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Trump administration has floated the idea that Rex Tillerson will be fired as secretary of state and replaced by Mike Pompeo, who would then be replaced at the CIA by Sen. Tom Cotton. The latter move would be disastrous for a whole variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it would mean putting a torture apologist in charge of the CIA. Those of you who are only familiar with the way waterboarding was embraced by the Bush/Cheney administration might not be aware of the agency’s long history with the covert use of torture.

But I’d like to focus on what Tom Cotton as CIA director would signal to Iran. You might remember that he was the author of a letter to Iranian mullahs that was a direct attempt to undermine the Obama administration’s negotiations to reach an agreement about halting the country’s nuclear weapons program. Cotton’s main concerns with that agreement seem to be that it prevented the possibility of war with Iran, which he predicted would be a breeze.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), a strong opponent of President Barack Obama’s diplomatic efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program, suggested on Tuesday that armed conflict with Tehran could be easily contained to “several days of air and naval bombing” and would not require the deployment of American ground troops. The comments eerily echoed the false predictions of Bush administration officials on the eve of the Iraq invasion.

Of course, the current president has refused to certify that Iran is in compliance with the agreement signed by the U.S. and five members of the UN Security Council + Germany, so tensions are already rising with that country.

Having someone as hostile to Iran as Tom Cotton in charge of the CIA is likely to spark memories of the agency’s role in the 1953 Iranian coup, which toppled the country’s first democratically elected prime minister.

In August 2013, 60 years after, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted that it was in charge of both the planning and the execution of the coup, including the bribing of Iranian politicians, security and army high-ranking officials, as well as pro-coup propaganda. The CIA is quoted acknowledging the coup was carried out “under CIA direction” and “as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government”.

While negotiating the current agreement with Iran, President Obama recognized the importance of that history.

Clearly, [Obama] added, “part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war. So part of what I’ve told my team is we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven, offensive Iran and the defensive Iran that feels vulnerable and sometimes may be reacting because they perceive that as the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past.

While no one would be sympathetic to the use of this history by Iran’s leading mullahs, the people of that country have been demonstrating their support of reforms that could ultimately benefit the entire region. A threat posed by Trump as president, combined with Cotton at the CIA, would go a long way towards undermining any potential for progress, as fears mounted about another U.S. military intervention.


In almost every way imaginable, the possibility of Tom Cotton in charge of the CIA revives the concerns many of us have had for decades about the dark past of that agency. I find it hard to imagine anything worse for this country’s image and interactions around the globe.

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