Ron Paul and the Straits of Hormuz

Iran has been conducting naval exercises in the Straits of Hormuz, with plans on Saturday to test some long-range missiles.  Several high Iranian officials have issued threats to blockade the Straits, prompting stern warnings from the U.S. Navy, in an exchange summarized by Haaretz as follows:

The spark for the row was a Tuesday remark by Iranian Vice President Mohammd-Reza Rahimi that, “if Western countries sanctioned Iranian oil, then Iran would not allow one drop of oil to cross the Strait of Hormuz.”

Following his remarks, Iranian navy commander Admiral Habibollah Sayari said, although there was currently no necessity for Iran to close the strait, “it would be as easy as drinking a glass of water.”

After the U.S. Navy said it would not accept any Iranian disruption of the free flow of goods through Hormuz, Iran continued the war of words with Revolutionary Guard deputy chief Hossein Salami saying that the U.S. was in no position to tell Iran what to do.

Salami also called the U.S. “an iceberg which is to be melted by the high degree of the Iranian revolution,” and “a sparrow in the body of a dinosaur.”

Presidential candidate and Texas congressman Ron Paul, noted for his belief that American policy is the cause of most foreign strife, responded to this news by agreeing with the Iranians that Western sanctions against Iran to thwart its nuclear ambitions would be an “act of war.”  As reported by the L.A. Times:

Paul, one of the leading contenders to win next week’s Iowa caucuses, said Iran would be justified in responding to the sanctions by blocking the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.  He compared the western sanctions to a hypothetical move by China to block the Gulf of Mexico, which Americans would consider an act of war.

He also said he would not respond militarily to keep the strait open—because he would not consider it an act of war against the U.S.  But if he were president, he would report to Congress on the issue, leaving it up to lawmakers to declare war if they wanted.  

“I think we’re looking for trouble because we put these horrendous sanctions on Iran,” Paul told a midday audience at the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa.  He said the Iranians are “planning to be bombed” and understandably would like to have a nuclear weapon, even though there is “no evidence whatsoever” that they have “enriched” uranium.

Apparently alluding to Israel and its nuclear-weapons arsenal, Paul said that “if I were an Iranian, I’d like to have a nuclear weapon, too, because you gain respect from them.”

Paul went on to suggest, as he has done several times before, that forces within the American government are hungry for war with Iran.  He pithily summarized his own approach as, “I think the solution is to do a lot less a lot sooner and mind our own business and then we would not have this threat of another war.”

Paul’s position could be fairly expressed without the paranoid rumblings about warmongers lurking in Washington.  That’s a damning allegation to throw out broadly, and I notice Paul never specifies exactly who is supposed to be eagerly advancing their agenda with a massive war that would kill thousands of Americans, Iranians, and others.  He’s fine with throwing blanket allegations like that at the United States, but never at Iran, an aggressor nation that has sent forces into Iraq for the purpose of killing American troops. 

You’ll also notice that Iran was first, and loudest, to openly threaten warlike actions in the current Straits of Hormuz situation, using memorably colorful and belligerent language.  The Americans are never the ones talking about melting icebergs and sparrows stuffed in the belly of a dinosaur, but supposedly we’re the ones goading other nations into violence.

Paul thinks we’re supposed to ignore saber-rattling from Iran, but that only invites more bullying, as well as increasing the chance that belligerent autocratic nations will make one of those grisly “miscalculations.”  We’ve been told for years that one of the reasons Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait is because American diplomats didn’t make it sufficiently clear to him that his aggression would not be tolerated.  Silence in the face of belligerent threats to cut off a huge chunk of the world’s oil supply would factor into Iran’s calculations about whether or not to risk such a blockade.  It would also be considered by other bad actors around the world.  Every international conversation or dispute occurs in front of a very large audience.

Such decisions are not made lightly, even by the most aggressive dictatorships.  Costs and benefits are weighed, although not according to the same formula that a democracy would use.  Iran, for example, has a great deal to lose if it shuts down the Straits of Hormuz.  Western sanctions might indeed alter their calculations, by giving them less to lose.  The suspicion, or open declaration, that the U.S. Navy would not act against their blockade would also dramatically change their assessment of costs and benefits.  

We might reach the point where only the presumption of peace-loving good faith on Iran’s part – a presumption Paul is expressly unwilling to extend to the government of his own country – argues against a blockade.  The same man who is vocally willing to assume the best about totalitarian states with bloody hands is remarkably consistent about warning that America is an irrational, overbearing threat to global harmony, which only he can control.

The sanctions that Iran says would provoke it into blockading the Straits of Hormuz involve “a ban on imports of Iranian oil,” perhaps coupled with barring banks that facilitate the Iranian oil trade from doing business in the U.S. or Europe, as explained by a recent CNBC article.  China is Iran’s biggest oil customer, and they would surely continue to buy oil from them, but the flood of embargoed Iranian oil would likely prompt them to demand a deep discount.  They’re already haggling with Iran over the price of oil.

Is the corollary of Paul’s position therefore that America and Europe must continue to buy Iranian oil and provide the financial infrastructure for their exchanges with refineries, under all circumstances?  A military blockade, involving violence against civilian vessels, is indeed a recognized act of war, but it is not the precise equivalent of an embargo. 

The Heritage Foundation carefully modeled the effects of an Iranian blockade of the Straits of Hormuz a couple of years ago, and concluded that “if Iran succeeded in fully blockading the strait for up to one week, Americans would see a massive spike in oil prices, a one-quarter drop in GDP of $161 billion, the loss of one million jobs, and a drop of real disposable personal income costing more than $260 billion.” 

Are we really supposed to believe that President Paul would respond to that by holding a press conference and telling the American people he completely understands the Iranian position, and thinks we should respect their desire to interfere with international maritime activity?  Even the most ardent Paul supporter should understand that his Administration would be completely erased within three days of that announcement, and his party would probably die along with it.

Paul also says he would leave it up to Congress to decide if they felt like declaring war, and respect their decision.  Presidents do not sit quietly on the sidelines and wait for Congress to make up its mind.  One of the greatest assets of the White House is the bully pulpit, and Paul would be expected to use it to express the strength of his convictions.  A President also has great leverage as the titular head of his party, and enjoys influence with its congressional delegation.  The people who take Ron Paul’s foreign policy views seriously would regard him as craven for folding his hands and passively awaiting a response to Iranian aggression from Capitol Hill… which is very different from saying he would not use military force without obtaining Congressional authorization.

Foreign policy is complicated, not least because it relies upon the decisions of foreign governments that may not be responsive to the will of their own people, much less the influence of American diplomats.  Conditions change, often quite suddenly.  Our intelligence about closed societies often proves incorrect.  That’s why the “easy answers” always turn out to be unsatisfying.  They require us to assume the worst about ourselves, as a means of finding common ground with adversaries who already feel that way, and will not be much embarrassed on the day they fail to live up to the high expectations of isolationists.