Rand Paul Would Undermine Trump's Iran Policy

The senator's views on the Islamic Republic are dangerous and deeply misguided

Sen. Rand Paul / Getty
July 23, 2019

The Trump administration's strategy toward Iran is to exert maximum pressure on the regime to force it to renegotiate the flawed nuclear deal and, hopefully, to reach a broader agreement that curtails Iran's nonnuclear belligerence, both within its borders and across the Middle East. And if Tehran refuses to negotiate, then the administration will crush Iran's tyrannical regime using the immense weight of American power, giving Iranian leaders a choice: yield, compromise, and survive, or risk untold suffering—and possible extinction.

The strategy is working. Already one hears voices—even rabid, anti-American ones—linked to the regime calling for talks with the United States. Mojtaba Zonnour, for example, said last month that if the United States attacks Iran, then the Iranian military would destroy Israel and sink an American aircraft carrier. Since then, however, the conservative cleric, who chairs Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said Iran "is not running away from talks and the path to talking remains open." Even former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for outrageous, anti-Semitic outbursts, is advocating diplomacy.

More broadly, Iran's recent acts of aggression, coupled with its foreign minister's new diplomatic proposal, fit the regime's way of negotiating: applying pressure with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' belligerence while, simultaneously, coaxing adversaries with Iran's charming, English-speaking diplomats. This dichotomy is coordinated and suggests Iran is working to give itself leverage in future talks. The regime is clearly feeling pressure.

Anyone who supports President Trump's strategy—and, frankly, anyone who seeks a better deal—should be concerned that Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) is now involved in diplomacy with Iran. Politico first reported Wednesday that Paul asked Trump whether he could serve as an "emissary" to Iran to reduce tensions between Washington and Tehran. Then on Friday, Trump told reporters that he authorized Paul to negotiate with Iran, or at least to speak to Iranian officials. Also on Friday, media outlets reported that, a day earlier, Paul met Mohammad Javad Zarif, the regime's chief liar, in New York. Paul appears intent on standing between the administration and Iran, fancying himself the shrewdest of negotiators.

Paul is no doubt a great golfing partner, but when it comes to foreign policy, he has misguided, ill-informed, and even dangerous views—views that would undermine, if not completely derail, the Trump administration's strategy.

In the realm of foreign policy, Paul's ideas are similar to those of Barack Obama, and even to those of radical, far-left progressives, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.). Paul, like them, blames the United States for many of the world's problems, especially in the Middle East. For example, Paul has blamed Republican hawks for "creating" the Islamic State—a charge that the murderous regimes in Iran and Syria also make. Paul and the progressives draw their views on foreign policy from the same stubborn, isolationist ideology, according to which American power is a source of shame and trouble for the world. One of Trump's most ardent supporters on the airwaves, conservative radio host Mark Levin, made these points last week. Paul is "no different" than Sanders or Omar "in terms of foreign policy," said Levin, who added that Paul "has never seen an enemy where he hasn't blamed the American people for being the reason we have that enemy." Levin even said that Paul is not dovish, but actually a "Code Pink ideologue."

Like the anti-American extremists in Code Pink, Paul excuses the actions of America's enemies, dismissing them as understandable reactions to America's "sins." This point is most evident when Paul discusses Iran. A telling example is from March 2017, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on Iran. "When we say, 'Oh, we must push back against Iran,' it's sort of like, who pushed whom first? Who provoked whom first?" Paul asked. "[Iran pushes] back against people who push against them. Who pushed first? I don't know."

Asking, "Who started it?" is not helpful, but Paul should know there is a correct answer. Before the Iranian revolution, Iran and the United States were allies. But in 1979, Iran struck first, supporting Iranian students who took American diplomats hostage for more than a year. Then Iran, whose leaders were already calling America the "great Satan," launched terrorist attacks against American soldiers and allies, making clear that the regime was, and remains today, at war with the United States. Paul's efforts to muddy this clear history show that he either knows very little about American-Iranian relations or that he, like the progressives, does not believe America is the "good guy" in this relationship, drawing a moral equivalence between the two countries. Moreover, he implies the United States should let Iran wreak havoc across the Middle East and further destabilize the region while it builds longer-range ballistic missiles. Such a policy would only embolden the regime to be more aggressive.

At the hearing, Paul justified Iran's intervention in Syria as an understandable response to our allies' actions, showing an unwillingness to condemn Iranian complicity in the Assad regime's murder of about 500,000 people and the displacement of millions more. It should be easy to condemn Iran's savagery in Syria. Trump recognizes this savagery and, unlike his predecessor, authorized strikes against the Assad regime—which could not survive without Iran’s support—for gassing its own people. Paul, meanwhile, has questioned whether Assad used chemical weapons.

Paul also repeatedly drew moral and strategic equivalences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, echoing the Democrats' disdain for the latter, one of America's most important regional allies. He explained that America gets "fixated" on Iran while Saudi Arabia is responsible for most of the world's terrorism. (The senator is either unaware of or chooses to ignore Iran's longtime support for Sunni jihadist groups, including al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.) When Martin Indyk, an expert on the Middle East testifying before the committee, responded that the Iranians are "very aggressive ... trying to export their revolution," Paul interrupted to note the Iranians would describe the Saudis as the aggressive ones. He then grilled Indyk on Yemen in a way that would make Bernie Sanders proud. "This is not all Iran," Paul continued. "I am not a supporter of Iran or its government, but there are problems on both sides of this war." When someone sounds like an apologist for the regime and needs to clarify they do not support it, they should not be representing the United States in diplomacy with Iran.

Paul repeats the regime's talking points and advocates the same policies as the Democrats. Perhaps that is why the Obama administration's pro-Iran "echo chamber" has identified Paul as a potential ally and is using him to undermine Trump's strategy. As the Washington Free Beacon reported, the echo chamber and Iranian officials are trying to cause discord and friction between Trump and his national security team in a desperate bid to save the nuclear deal. Zarif's efforts to reach out to Paul are part of this nefarious effort. Because Paul repeats the echo chamber's talking points and is a Republican, he is a powerful, if unwitting, ally for them.

Paul has portrayed Obama-esque engagement with Iran as the only alternative to war. Indeed, Paul would approach any serious negotiations as John Kerry did: offering the regime an outstretched hand without any threat of military force or coercive action. Paul should want to prevent war. The problem is that, over its history, the Islamic Republic has shown that it will avoid, and yield in the face of, direct confrontation but lash out when it senses weakness. So rushing to negotiate to avoid conflict, as Paul seeks to do, would embolden Iran, giving it leverage that it will not have if Trump continues with maximum pressure. Paul, moreover, is ideologically opposed to Trump's forceful posture toward Iran—the senator has said that Iranians view the reimposition of American sanctions as an "act of war"—and against nearly all interventions. These ingredients make a negotiator who would take a bad deal if given the opportunity. Simply put, Paul's views on Iran contradict those of the Trump administration, and his involvement in negotiations would undermine Trump's strategy of maximum pressure.

Trump is right to show the Iranians that he is open to negotiations, but the only way that they will agree to a deal to Trump's liking is if he maintains pressure, along with a credible threat of military force if necessary. Iran has shown that it will violate all of its revolutionary principles if its leaders feel the regime's survival is at risk. Maximum pressure will work if Trump is unrelenting and unforgiving, bringing the regime to its knees and then stepping on its throat until he gets his way. Iran's cruel government oppresses its own people, butchers innocents across the Middle East, murders American soldiers, and threatens core American interests. The regime does not deserve Trump's mercy or sympathy. Tehran actually expects Trump in the end to show weakness and yield, just as Obama did. Trump should prove Iran wrong and see his policy through. But to do that, he cannot listen to Paul.