Rand Paul: Think Twice Before Sanctioning Iran

U.S. Capitol dome with U.S. flag. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/David Maiolo

If you want to shape Iran’s behavior, you have to think like its leaders.

Sometimes it seems we take action in foreign policy without fully understanding the consequences. From the Iraq War, to arming Syrian rebels, this has been shown over and over again.

Recently, the U.S. Senate considered new sanctions against Iran regarding ballistic missiles and the funding of terrorism. These are important matters, and we should discuss them. Iran is certainly part of this problem. But we should also discuss the larger picture. We are currently in the middle of an agreement regarding nuclear power and proliferation with Iran that, so far, both sides say has been kept. The issues in the sanctions bill are not subject to that agreement. So unilateral action outside the current agreement, even for legitimate purposes, must be carefully weighed. What does this action do to the prospects of ensuring compliance with the agreement?

It has been said in the debate so far that we do not care what Tehran thinks, or if they think this is an abrogation of the nuclear agreement. Well, let’s consider that statement. If we do not care what they think, why are we trying to influence their behavior? What are sanctions if not a hope to change their way of thinking?

If they react in one way by saying, “We are going to get out of the nuclear agreement,” that would be a pretty important and dramatic step. I am not saying they will. They might, though, and we ought to have at least thought through that scenario and understand that, while we will not condone or acquiesce to their opinion, we do care about it because that is what we are trying to change. We are trying to change their attitude toward continued expansion of their ballistic missile program.

As I read through these new Iran sanctions, there are several areas that strike me as curious. I find it intriguing that every one of these areas could equally apply to Saudi Arabia. As we look at the ballistic missile section, we recall that Saudi Arabia also has ballistic missiles, the Dong Feng-3s and -21s. Where are they pointed? Tel Aviv and Tehran.

Our CIA inspected the DF-21s and said they are not currently nuclear capable. But are they convertible? Are they nuclear capable? Yeah, they are nuclear capable, and they are pointed at Israel and Iran.

So, if we want to influence the behavior of Iran, we would have to understand that, while we do not have to agree with it, we do have to care about what they think, and we must consider if these sanctions will have an effect.

The sanctions’ unilateral nature renders them unlikely to succeed. Iran has already stated they will not stop their ballistic missile program. While we think the whole world sees everything through our lens, I think Iran sees what their neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, think and do as much more important than what we do or what our sanctions say, frankly.

If the whole world invoked these sanctions, they might be effective, as worldwide sanctions did influence their behavior—that and the carrot of giving them back some of their money. But I do not think these unilateral sanctions will have any effect.

If you really want to get rid of their ballistic-missile program, we should look at who else in the region they perceive as a threat. I do not think they really perceive us as a threat. We have thousands of ballistic missiles, yes, but I think they are primarily concerned with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf sheikhdoms, who already have hundreds of missiles. They also see Israel’s nuclear weapons as a threat.

So, if you wanted to influence the behavior of Iran, you might consider sanctioning Saudi Arabia in equal fashion. Let us have sanctions on both countries regarding ballistic missiles, and let us say we will remove them when they come to the table to discuss reducing their armaments. Another way of doing it would be to withhold the $350 billion worth of new weapons and missiles to Saudi Arabia until both sides come together to discuss an arms control treaty. Perhaps you could say we are going to withhold that offer until Saudi Arabia agrees to negotiate with Iran.

It is my belief that Iran will never quit developing ballistic missiles unless there is an agreement with Saudi Arabia and/or the rest of the Gulf kingdoms to do the same. And so I think new sanctions are a fool’s errand, and they will not work.

New sanctions may even have a counterproductive effect if Iran decides they somehow abrogate the nuclear agreement. If Iran pulls out of the agreement, I think we will really regret hastily adding new sanctions.

The second area of the sanctions that struck me regards terrorism. It seems to me this section might equally apply to Saudi Arabia. In assessing Saudi Arabia’s connection to terrorism, I am reminded of two comments. First is the Hillary Clinton email to John Podesta, where she says, “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

Pages