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Sen. Rand Paul bucks party, says getting out of Iran deal was 'a mistake'

The Kentucky Republican leaves classified briefing, says US in "much more difficult position now" than when the JCPOA was enforced.

Analysis | Reporting | Middle East

While the rest of his party remains in firm opposition to it, Republican Senator Rand Paul appears to be in favor of a return to the Iran nuclear deal. He said as much on Tuesday, charging that America’s exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a “mistake” made by former President Donald Trump. 

The Senator made the statements in an interview with POLITICO’s Andrew Desiderio after a classified briefing on Capitol Hill, adding that “by all accounts, we’re in a much more difficult position now than when we had” an intact JCPOA. 

Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear agreement in 2018 and placed a “maximum pressure” sanctions regime on Iran. He believed the economic war would force Iran to the table and he could negotiate a tougher agreement. At the time, the UN nuclear watchdog had confirmed Iran was in full compliance with the JCPOA.

Tehran has made several advancements in its nuclear program, since. However, the progress has remained in the civilian sector. There is no indication Iran is looking to make nuclear weapons. The Iranian government has withstood a lot of the economic pressure, in part, by increasing ties with Venezuela and China. 

The Biden administration has been in negotiations with Iran — and the other parties to the JCPOA, including Russia, China, UK, Germany, France and the EU  — in Vienna for several months with many expecting that there will be an agreement announced in the very near future. 

But one hurdle to a potential return to the agreement is Congressional opposition. Paul recently broke with his party when he became the only GOP Senator not to sign on to a letter that condemned what they considered a weak deal on the table with Iran. (Many Democrats, including Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, are also opposed to a successful return to the old agreement). 

The March 14 Republican letter states that the senators want nothing less than a new deal with new restrictions on Iran that go far beyond its nuclear program:

“Republicans have made it clear: We would be willing and eager to support an Iran policy that completely blocks Iran’s path to a nuclear weapons capability, constrains Iran’s ballistic missile program, and confronts Iran’s support for terrorism. But if the administration agrees to a deal that fails to achieve these objectives or makes achieving them more difficult, Republicans will do everything in our power to reverse it.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence, in a recent trip to Israel, told Israeli leaders and the press that any future Republican administration would tear up any deal Biden made in Vienna immediately. The Israel government has been one of the deal’s biggest critics and played a heavy role in convincing Trump to withdraw from it in 2018. Interestingly, former Israeli leaders have come forward in recent months to say they thought getting out of the deal and accompanying maximum pressure campaign against Iran might have been a strategic mistake.

With the even Republican-Democrat divide in Congress, Paul's support could actually be crucial for a return to the nuclear agreement with Iran, and he could even serve as an example to other Republicans who may not be so adamantly against it.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) looks on during a U.S. Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Hearing, September 23, 2020. Alex Edelman/Pool via REUTERS
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