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Youngest US Senator in Global Spotlight After Iran Letter

Republicans' Open Letter to Iran Stirs Controversy
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Watch reactions to Senator Tom Cotton's letter

The man behind the controversial letter sent by 47 Senators to Iranian leaders is the youngest member of the United States Senate. Yet 37-year-old Tom Cotton of Arkansas has already made his mark on the international stage.

He authored the letter warning Iranian leaders that any potential deal they reach in talks on curbing their nuclear program might well be undone by the successor to President Barack Obama. And Cotton convinced 46 other Republican senators - but no Democrats - to sign it.

The letter comes just weeks before an end of March deadline to reach an interim deal in the talks.

Thomas “Tom” Cotton, Junior U.S. Senator, R-AK

Thomas “Tom” Cotton, Junior U.S. Senator, R-AK

  • Age 37, youngest member of the Senate
  • Formerly U.S. House of Representatives, Arkansas, 4th District, 2013-2015
  • Graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, Harvard Law School (2002)
  • Served as captain in the U.S. Army; tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Authored letter to Iran leaders, organized supporting signatures of 47 Republican Senators

Tom Cotton’s biography would be a great asset for any politician. Raised on his parent’s cattle farm in Arkansas, he graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Cotton joined the Army and served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Only two years later, he ran for the Senate and defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor by a wide margin.

Cotton campaigned against abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act health care reform, often called “Obamacare.” But he also appealed to fellow veterans, advocating an interventionist U.S. foreign policy based on military strength as he traveled around Arkansas in a bus decorated with military camouflage and a large boot print on the front.

Cotton has been in the Senate for only 65 days. He has not yet delivered his first speech, but he made waves last month at a hearing on attempts by the Obama administration to close down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

During the hearing, Cotton grilled an Obama administration official. He said "the only problem with Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now."

"We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe," he added. "As far as I'm concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they can't do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay."

A local Arkansas paper reported that Cotton and several of his fellow freshman senators toured the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Friday.

Reaction to Cotton's letter

Among Democrats and many observers, the letter to Iranian leaders triggered outrage. Democratic senators lined up to say it undermines President Obama at a critical time when his administration is trying to negotiate a deal with Tehran to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

President Obama said he is embarrassed for the senators. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was in utter disbelief, adding that the letter breaks with 200 years of precedence in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

A headline in the New York Daily News blasted Cotton and the others who signed the letter as “traitors.”

Republicans reaction has been mainly positive, but not entirely. Seven Republican senators did not sign the letter, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker.

Corker said he is trying to win support for bipartisan legislation which would let the Senate weigh in on an Iran nuclear deal; and the letter is “not helpful.”

Some analysts say the letter could backfire, turning the nuclear talks into a partisan political issue, and driving away some Democrats who might have joined with Republicans on Corker's legislation.

Tom Cotton for president?

It is not clear whether the letter will have an impact on the Iran nuclear talks in Switzerland, but it has certainly won Cotton the admiration of many of his fellow Republican senators and boosted his stature nationwide as a voice for an interventionist foreign policy.

Republican Senate Whip John Cornyn of Texas said Cotton’s background makes him a great new member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Other Republican senators lined up to praise Cotton’s leadership and courage.

Even before the letter was released, an Arkansas Republican state senator introduced a bill in the Little Rock, Arkansas, legislature that would allow Tom Cotton to seek re-election for his Senate seat, and to run for president or vice president of the United States at the same time — in 2020.

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