Rand Paul Finally, Sort of, Responds to the Iran Negotiations

A history of the senator's evolving anti-hawk hawkishness.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) campaigns for Georgia Senate candidate David Perdue (left) during a campaign stop at the McDonough Square on October 24, 2014 in McDonough, Georgia.

Photographer: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. –The freeze is over. Throughout the last week, as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul took some vacation time in advance of Tuesday's expected presidential announcement, his spokesmen deferred questions about Indiana's religious freedom debate or the negotiations with Iran. Paul, they said, was "out of pocket." Reporters couldn't help but notice that Paul was taking questions about other topics; much public and private goading of Paul's spokesmen came to nothing.

Finally, this morning, Bloomberg asked the nascent campaign two questions about Iran. One: Did Paul support the deal the Obama administration had formulated with Iran, or did he think (as virtually every vocal Republican) thinks, that it let Iran off the hook? Two: Did Paul still think, as he did in 2007, that Iran was not a threat to the United States? 

"We don't know the details of the deal yet," said Doug Stafford, a spokesman for Paul's PAC. "Senator Paul will be watching closely and believes any deal must make clear Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon, allows for full verification and is approved by Congress. He voted for sanctions both times they were put before Congress and believes only Congress should remove those sanctions."

The early coverage of Paul's launch keeps returning to two themes–that Paul has slid away from his old libertarian views, and that doing so has risked the support from the "liberty movement" his father serendipitously built. Paul's hesitant approach to the Iran deal did not represent a real evolution in thought. What it represented was the carefulness Paul now brings to issues he used to barrel right into. This is a quick guide to how he's evolved.

Dec. 12, 2007. Paul gives a a wide-ranging interview with Alex Jones, tied to the online "money bomb" fundraiser that was happening five days later on behalf of his father's presidential campaign. Near the end, as Alana Goodman first reported, the younger Paul took some swings at the people who considered his father an isolationist.

"They all want to invade Iran next," said Paul. "I tell people in speeches, you know, we’re against the Iraq War, we have been from the beginning, but we’re also against the Iran war, the one that hasn’t started yet. I think people want to paint my father into some corner, but if you look at it intellectually, look at the evidence that Iran is not a threat. Iran cannot even refine their own gasoline. Over 50 percent of their gasoline is imported from Europe."

Jones offered that the Bush administration had already admitted that Iran was far, far away from arming a nuke. "The CIA’s own national assessment says they’re not going to have one for eight years," said Jones.

"If we could just get Mike Huckabee to understand what that is," chuckled Paul. "I’m not sure he understands what the National Intelligence estimate is. But you’re right, even our own national intelligence community says that they’re not a threat. My dad says they don’t have an air force, they don’t have a navy, you know? It’s ridiculous to think that they’re a threat to our national security. It’s not even that viable to say they’re a threat to Israel. Most people think Israel has 100 nuclear weapons, you know?"

June 8, 2011. In a Q&A at Johns Hopkins, Paul is asked by ThinkProgress reporter Zaid Jilani asks Paul -- now a senator -- if he favors a "substantial" withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Toward the end, Paul suggests that cultural diplomacy with Iran might be more effective than war and its attendant backlash.

"Iran has a large undercurrent of people who like the West, you know?" Paul says. "They like our music, our culture, our literal. I'd rather we influence them in that way than go to war with them."

Jan. 3, 2012: As a surrogate for his father's final presidential campaign, on the day of the Iowa caucuses, Paul is asked to respond to Rick Santorum's call for immediate attacks on Iran.

"You know, Ron Paul doesn't want Iran to have nuclear weapons," says Rand Paul. "He thinks it could destabilize the Middle East. But should they get nuclear weapons, he thinks that there are some choices, and we shouldn't box ourself into a war." He quoted the head of Mossad to make his point, and chastised Santorum and his ilk for talking about dropping bombs: "I don't think they're thinking through the issues of what the unintended consequences of war are."

Feb. 24, 2012: At a town hall meeting in Alexandria, Kentucky, Paul is asked why he supported a vote for new sanctions on Iran. He explains it as an evolution in the way he approached the issue.

"How do you respond or try to prevent them from having nuclear weapons?" Paul asked rhetorically. "You could do nothing, you could do a little bit -- which I think would be sanctions -- or you can have an all out war where you invade. I did finally come down to the conclusion that doing something was better than doing nothing."

Feb. 6, 2013: At the Heritage Foundation, in his first major speech since Barack Obama's second inauguration, Paul calls Iran's development of a nuclear weapon "the most pressing issue of the day" but bemoans how any American who questions the hawks is "immediately castigated, rebuked and their patriotism challenged." He contrasts that with the debate in Israel, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one voice among many.

"Understandably no one wants to imagine what happens if Iran develops a nuclear weapon," says Paul. "But if we don’t have at least some of that discussion now, then the danger exists that war is the only remedy. No one, myself included, wants to see a nuclear Iran. Iran does need to know that all options are on the table. But we should not preemptively announce that diplomacy or containment will never be an option."

Nov. 18, 2013: Paul appears on a live-focus-grouped Fox News panel and explains his thinking on Iran. As he did in 2007, he grounds it as a dispute between war hawks and realists, between right-thinking Israelis and people who want to silence debate.

"I want the outcome to be one that's not war," he says. "I think we've had quite a bit of war in the last decade. I would like to have an outcome where Iran agrees not to have nuclear weapons, but at the same time we have that without having a war."

Charles Krauthammer, who's sitting next to Paul, asks what he would do if he occupied the White House and watched a deal collapse.

"I would say all options are on the table, and that would include military," says Paul.

Paul's basically maintained that stance ever since, yet completely reframed his view of the Iranian threat. In 2007, it did not really exist. In 2015, it has been real enough for Paul to sign a letter warning Iranians that the Congress could blow up any deal negotiated by the president. The only constant: To Paul, the people he disagrees with are adventuresome lunatics who want to start a war.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.