Senator Tom Cotton Speaks on the Senate Floor About Ayatollah Khamenei’s Nowruz Message

The transcript of his remarks can be found  below.
This week we will debate the budget. A key part is the millitary budget–the one part of our government where the strategy and threats must drive the budget not vice versa. The gravest threat to our national security is a nuclear-armed Iran, and this man, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Last week marked Nowruz, the beginning of the Persian New Year. On the occasion, we were treated to speeches by President Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. I have to say, President Obama’s speech was ill-advised. He addressed the Iranian people directly, asking them to press their leaders and “speak up” in support of a nuclear agreement with the United States.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Iranians who “speak up” tend to disappear into secret prisons—or wind up hanging from a crane by the neck. Worse, by acting as if public opinion matters to the ayatollahs, President Obama is treating Iran as if it were a legitimate democracy, not a brutal, theocratic dictatorship. No president should legitimize such a regime, which only emboldens the dictator and undermines the Iranian people struggling under his yoke.

But, today, I want to focus on the speech of this man, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. The ayatollah gave his speech on Saturday. It may have escaped your attention, but it wasn’t exactly a new year’s message filled with blessings of hope and peace.

Ayatollah Khamenei has never been a great admirer of the America, of course. He sometimes likes to refer to us as “the Great Satan.” During his Nowruz speech, he whipped the crowd into frenzied chants of “death to America!” What was his response to that chant? He said, “Yes, certainly, death to America!” Death to America.

Remember, this is the leader with whom the United States is negotiating today. A theocratic tyrant who, in the middle of nuclear negotiations, chants, “death to America.” I would suggest that we might rethink the wisdom of granting nuclear concessions to such a man.

Unfortunately, Ayatollah Khamenei may know his negotiating partners somewhat better than they know themselves. For the ayatollah also observed, “Iran’s enemies, particularly America, are moving forward with prudence and diplomacy, I understand them. They know what they are doing. They need these negotiations. America needs the nuclear negotiations.”

Regrettably, Ayatollah Khamenei is right that he “understands” his enemies, since the West, especially the president, acts as if we need these negotiations more than Iran does. After all, we had Iran on its knees in 2013, when President Obama gave Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief for merely starting negotiations. The West has extended negotiations twice in exchange for nothing. The president has also made a series of one-sided concessions, from Iran’s uranium-enrichment capabilities to the length of a nuclear agreement. So, yes, unfortunately, Ayatollah Khamenei is correct when he says he “understands” his enemies.

Let’s consider what he said about these negotiations in this light. The ayatollah emphasized, “We are absolutely not negotiating or holding discussions with the Americans over regional or domestic issues and neither over weapons capabilities.” He’s absolutely right. Iran has a ballistic-missile program, which it only needs if it wants to strike the United States or our European allies, because it already has missiles capable of striking Israel or anywhere else in the Middle East. Yet we’ve removed its missile program from the negotiating table. Just like we’ve removed the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program from the table, even though that’s critical to understanding how far they’ve progressed toward a bomb.

And it’s not just their weapons capabilities; note that the ayatollah also said Iran isn’t negotiating over “regional” issues. He made this point repeatedly, saying also “We are not negotiating with the Americans over regional issues. U.S. goals in the region are in complete contrast with our goals” and “negotiations with the U.S. are only over the nuclear issue, and nothing else. Every one should be aware of this.”

By “regional issues” and “our goals,” to be clear, Ayatollah Khamenei means Iran’s drive for regional hegemony. The outlaw Assad regime in Syria is more beholden to Iran than ever. Iranian-aligned militants have seized the capital of Yemen, causing the American embassy to close and our troops to evacuate. Iranian-backed and Iranian-led Shiite militias are slowly taking over Iraq. And Lebanon remains subject to Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy.

Despite this multi-front aggression, President Obama is compartmentalizing the nuclear negotiations, as if Iran’s drive for hegemony and its pursuit of nuclear weapons are distinguishable and unrelated, rather than both springing from the regime’s revolutionary nature. In fact, President Obama reportedly wrote a private letter to Ayatollah Khamenei in November—his fourth private letter to the ayatollah—in part reassuring him that the United States wouldn’t undermine Assad’s regime in Syria. Is it any wonder then that the ayatollah boasts the negotiations are so limited?

Or is it any wonder what Ayatollah Khamenei said this weekend about sanctions relief? President Obama and Secretary Kerry keep insisting that sanctions can only be lifted gradually as Iran demonstrates compliance with any deal. The ayatollah is having none of that. He said this past weekend, “the lifting of the sanctions is part of the issues being negotiated and not the outcome of the negotiations.” In other words, in exchange for the ayatollah’s ephemeral and easily reversed promises, “sanctions must be lifted immediately following an agreement.” That’s not a splittable difference, and let’s just say our side’s history of one-side concessions in these negotiations doesn’t inspire confidence that we will preserve a sanctions regime that took decades to assemble fully.

Finally, Ayatollah Khamenei wants the world to know that Iran won’t be bound in perpetuity by any deal, no matter its terms. He said, “the Americans keep saying that there should be irreversibility in the terms Iran accepts and the decisions it makes, we do not accept that.” The ayatollah is happy to pocket concessions now for billions of dollars more in sanctions relief and international legitimacy, while preserving the option of going nuclear in the future, much as North Korea did after the 1994 Agreed Framework. I understand why Ayatollah Khamenei would want that deal, but why would we?

Evil men rarely cloak their wicked intent and I would urge my fellow senators and all Americans to pay careful attention to Ayatollah Khamenei’s words, both this past weekend and more generally. When someone chants “death to America,” we should take him at his word—and we shouldn’t put him on the path to a nuclear bomb. Those words are appalling enough; let’s not give him the ability to act on them.