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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Ad Links Rand Paul to Obama on Iran

A conservative group welcomed Sen. Rand Paul into the presidential race with a TV ad that says he “supports Obama’s negotiations with Iran.” That’s misleading. Paul does support negotiating a nuclear deal, but he wants Congress to approve it — a major difference between the Republican senator and Democratic president.

Paul was one of 47 senators who signed a letter to Iranian officials warning that any deal reached between them and Obama could be undone by Congress or overturned by a future president. Obama later said he was “embarrassed” for those who signed the letter. Paul also is a cosponsor of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 that seeks to provide Congress an up-or-down vote on any nuclear pact with Iran. Obama has threatened to veto the bill.

However, Paul also goes too far in his response to the ad when he says “almost every element of the ad is a lie.” The ad is correct when it says that Obama and Paul opposed “tough new sanctions on Iran.” In January, Paul opposed a Senate bill that sought to reimpose sanctions against Iran that were rolled back by Obama during negotiations and to add new sanctions if a deal fell through. Obama had threatened to veto such a bill.

The ad is being run by the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, a 501(c)4 group led by Rick Reed, a Republican strategist involved in the controversial Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad campaign in 2004 that attacked Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s military service. The group says it will spend $1 million to air the 30-second spot on broadcast television and Fox News this week in the first four early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

The ad shows violent images of Iran and multiple on-screen pairings of Paul and Obama as the narrator says, “The Senate is considering tough new sanctions on Iran. President Obama says he’ll veto them, and Rand Paul is standing with him. Rand Paul supports Obama’s negotiations with Iran. But he doesn’t understand the threat.”

The video then cuts to an audio clip of Paul saying of Iran, “You know, it’s ridiculous to think that they’re a threat to our national security.”

“Rand Paul is wrong and dangerous,” the ad’s narrator concludes. “Tell him to stop siding with Obama, because even one Iranian bomb would be a disaster.” The ad ends with the image of an exploding nuclear bomb.

Paul on Negotiations

As the ad says, some in the Senate did consider new sanctions against Iran, and Paul opposed that effort. The bill, called the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, was introduced by Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call in January, Paul said he opposed the timing of the bill, fearing it might jeopardize the support of other members of the P5+1 partnership (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — plus Germany).

Since late 2013, the P5+1 partners and Iran have been operating under an interim agreement that required Iran to freeze portions of its nuclear program in exchange for some relief from international sanctions. On April 2, the White House announced that the framework for a broader, 15-year deal had been hammered out, with the hope that a deal will be finalized by June 30.

“My fear is that in eagerness, you know, to put more sanctions on those who are overly eager … could get us to a point where there are only two solutions: either Iran gets a bomb or there’s war, whereas right now we have a third solution which is a little better,” Paul said in the CQ Roll Call interview. “I’ve been talking with many Republicans and many Democrats to try to try [sic] find a way forward that does not ruin the chance for negotiations. I voted for sanctions in the past with the intention and the hope that we could find a peaceful outcome to this where Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. My fear is that if new sanctions are placed on that, the sanctions coalition will break up.”

Paul added that while he did not support additional sanctions while a deal is being negotiated, he did support legislation that “[lets] Iran know that if they don’t comply with the current agreement, the interim agreement, that sanctions would be resumed. I think this a better way than placing new sanctions on. Then what would happen is you would have presumption of what is already out there, and it would be based on Iranian noncompliance instead of Congress setting new parameters.”

Paul echoed those sentiments during a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing the following day, saying he did not necessarily oppose an agreement, but adding that he wanted Congress to have the final say on it.

Paul, Jan. 21: As we move forward, I have been one who says new sanctions in the middle of negotiations is a huge mistake and may well break up the sanctions coalition, may well drive Iran away from the table. I have been one who wants sanctions because I do not want war, frankly. … I think there are several of us on this side who do not blanket say no, we will not vote to approve an agreement. But we want you to know that we have the right to vote, so you come and talk to us, so you talk to the chairman.

Obama threatened to veto a bill that imposed new sanctions if it did pass, arguing that it could jeopardize negotiations with Iran. So, Paul was “standing with” Obama on that particular bill.

But contrary to the ad’s claim that Paul “supports Obama’s negotiations,” Paul has parted with the president over the need for congressional approval of a deal. Paul has insisted that Congress be given final say on the agreement, something Obama has opposed.

Paul was one of 47 Republicans who signed an open letter to “the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” penned by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton warning that any deal signed by Obama could be revoked by the next president and that future Congresses “could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” As we noted in March, Congress cannot change an executive agreement, but it can nullify parts of the deal through legislation if it has enough votes. Obama later said he was “embarrassed for” the senators who signed the letter, which he called “close to unprecedented.”

Although the letter was addressed to Iranian leadership, Paul told Secretary of State John Kerry in a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on March 11 that he was sending a message to the White House that a deal needed to be approved by Congress.

Paul, March 11: We want you to understand the separation of powers. If this agreement in any way modifies legislative sanctions, it will have to be passed by Congress. That’s why that I’ve supported Senator Corker’s legislation that says exactly this. … So why do I sign this letter? I sign this letter because I sign it to an administration that doesn’t listen, to an administration that, every turn, tries to go around Congress because you think you can’t get your way. The president says, “Oh, the Congress won’t do what I want, so I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got my phone. I’m going to do what I want.” The letter was to you. The letter was to Iran, but it should’ve been CC’d to the White House, because the White House needs to understand that any agreement that removes or changes legislation will have to be passed by us.

Paul also is a cosponsor of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, a proposal backed by Menendez and Republican Sen. Bob Corker to hold an up-or-down vote on any nuclear pact with Iran. Obama has threatened to veto the bill if it passes, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the bill “could potentially interfere with the ongoing negotiations that are slated to continue through June.” The bill, so far, remains several votes shy of being veto-proof.

It remains unclear where Paul stands on the interim “framework” deal with Iran announced by the White House on April 2. While many potential (or declared) Republican presidential candidates were highly critical of the announced framework, Paul’s response has been more tempered. In an interview on the “Today” show on April 8, Paul said he was “somewhat skeptical” of the agreement, but said very little information about it has been shared and “I’m going to keep an open mind and look at the agreement.”

That measured response is a far cry from other potential GOP candidates like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who vowed to immediately nix the deal if they become president.

In an April 7 interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Paul said “almost every element of the ad is a lie. I mean, they say I’m helping the president. I’m actually one who has said to the president that this deal, when it becomes final, has to be finalized by Congress. And I’ve said I’ve done that to actually strengthen the president’s hand, but I do want him negotiating from a position of strength. … That’s what I’m trying to tell him, is that you’re going to have to bring a deal back to us.”

Added Paul, “I’m one of the ones who have said all along that Congress puts the sanctions on. I voted for the sanctions.”

We reached out to Paul’s office to see which sanctions he was referring to, but we did not hear back.

The record shows that on Dec. 1, 2011, Paul voted for sanctions against Iran in a separate amendment to a 2012 defense authorization bill. The amendment passed 100-0. But then he voted on Dec. 15, 2011, against the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 conference report, which contained those sanctions against Iran. So, he voted to add sanctions to the bill, but ultimately voted against the larger bill. Paul also voted for the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act. It passed by voice vote in the Senate on May 21, 2012, and the Senate approved changes to it on Aug. 1, 2012, also by voice vote. Obama signed it on Aug. 10, 2012.

Iran a National Security Threat?

As for the audio of Paul saying Iran is not a threat to U.S. security, the ad does not make it clear that it is from a 2007 radio interview. At the time, Paul was campaigning for his father, Ron Paul, who was running for president.

Breitbart posted a link to the full 2007 radio interview of Paul.

Rand Paul, 2007: It’ll be interesting to see what happens, particularly the war issue. I think you’re right that the war has become so unpopular — 65 to 70 percent of people against it. And on the Republican side, not only do they not have any idea about ending the Iraq war, they want to invade Iran next. I tell people in speeches, I say we’re against the Iraq war, we have been from the beginning, but we’re also against the Iran war, you know, the one that hasn’t started yet. The thing is 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 fifty percent of their gasoline is imported from Europe. General [John] Abizaid, who’s no leftwing nut, was head of the theater over there, retires recently, and he says “Look, we should discourage them from having a nuclear weapon but if they should get one it is not necessary, they are not a threat to our national security. It’s not necessary to go to war with them.”

Host: The CIA’s own national assessment says they’re not going to have one for eight years.

Paul: Yeah, if we could just get Mike Huckabee to understand what that is — I’m not sure he knows what the National Intelligence Estimate is. But you’re right, even our own intelligence community’s consensus opinion now is 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 national threat to Israel. Most people say Israel has a hundred nuclear weapons.

Paul was referring to a Sept. 17, 2007, address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in which retired Gen. John Abizaid said that the U.S. could “contain” Iran even if the country had “one or two nuclear weapons.” Abizaid went on to say that it is “likely” but “not inevitable” that Iran would develop the capability to build a nuclear weapon, and that the U.S. should “press the international community as hard as we possibly can and the Iranians to cease and desist on the development of a nuclear weapon. And we should not preclude any option that we may have to deal with it.”

But, Abizaid said, “There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran. Let’s face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union; we’ve lived with a nuclear China; we’re living with nuclear other powers as well. But I would tell you, I think it’s very, very important that we do what we can to prevent that from happening. And we should not underestimate our ability to do that.”

A second ad released by the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America features another clip of Paul saying, “Our national security is not threatened by Iran having one nuclear weapon.” According to a spokeswoman for the group, that Paul quote also dates to 2007.

Asked on the “Today” show about his 2007 quote, Paul said it was “a long time ago and events do change over long periods of time. So we’re talking about eight years ago, we’re talking about a time when I wasn’t running for office and I was helping someone else run for office. What I would say is that there has always been a threat of Iran gaining nuclear weapons and I think that’s greater now than it was many years ago. I think we should do everything we can to stop them.”

In the interview on Fox News, Hannity said he didn’t hear Paul saying “under no circumstances could we ever trust the Iranians with nukes.”

Paul responded, “No, we should not trust them with a nuclear weapon ever.”

— Robert Farley