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“We're blockading [Iran]. Can you imagine what we would do if somebody blockaded the Gulf of Mexico? That would be an act of war. So the act of war has already been committed and this is a retaliation. But besides, there's no interest whatsoever for Iran to close the Straits of Hormuz. I mean, they need it as much as we do. I mean, so you have to put that in a perspective. But this whole idea that we have to go to war because we've already committed an act by blockading the country, I agree with Newt (that “the American people have no interest in going to war anywhere.”)”

-- Ron Paul, during NBC News debate in Tampa, Jan. 23, 2012

Paul made these assertions as the GOP candidates were discussing Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, which would interrupt the flow of Mideast oil to the rest of the world. The libertarian congressman chimed in as Brian Williams was moving to foreign-policy topics, suggesting he couldn’t let this one go.  

Paul’s remarks illustrate one of his primary foreign policy views: that the U.S. should mind its own business and stop trying to force other nations to meet its demands. But the candidate’s characterization of U.S. actions struck us as interesting. Has the nation really imposed a blockade on Iran and committed an act of war against the republic?

The Facts

Paul’s assertions are curious considering that the United States is not involved in a literal blockade of Iran, nor of any other part of the world right now. In fact, the U.S. hasn’t participated in a blockade since the Bosnian War of the 1990s, when NATO forces tried to stop supplies from reaching rival factions through the Adriatic Sea.  

However, the United States has imposed a long list of sanctions against Iran, starting with a 1979 executive order that froze the Islamic Republic’s assets after U.S. Embassy officials were seized as hostages. The most recent example is an embargo against the Central Bank of Iran, approved as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that President Obama signed on New Year’s Eve.  

Paul appears to be equating these sanctions with blockades, but the connection is purely philosophical. We found no grounds for the congressman’s characterizations based on the definitions of “blockade” that we found — including one from Merriam-Webster.

The term sanction is also noticeably absent from the definition of blockade in the U.S. Navy’s “Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations.” Here’s how that one reads:

Blockade is a belligerent operation to prevent vessels and/or aircraft of all nations, enemy as well as neutral, from entering or exiting specified ports, airfields, or coastal areas belonging to, occupied by, or under the control of an enemy nation.While the belligerent right of visit and search is designed to interdict the flow of contraband goods, the belligerent right of blockade is intended to prevent vessels and aircraft, regardless of their cargo, from crossing an established and publicized cordon separating the enemy from international waters and/or airspace.

As for the legality of sanctions, Article 41 of the United Nations Charter authorizes them as “enforcement measures,” listing economic prohibitions, arms embargoes, travel bans and financial and diplomatic restrictions as examples of allowable actions.

Still, some experts argue that the United States goes too far when it imposes unilateral sanctions like those that the president recently approved.

“It’s an extraterritorial application of your own trade law,” said Flynt Leverett, a former Bush administration official who is now Penn State professor of international affairs and senior research fellow with the foreign policy think-tank New America Foundation. “If you buy Iranian oil or conduct transactions with the country’s central bank, the U.S. will cut you off.”

Does that mean sanctions constitute acts of war? Experts disagree, but the consensus opinion is that they do not.

“Any sanctions, especially if they’re non-violent, are not use-of-force violations,” said Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force major general and Duke University law professor who specializes in international law.

For what it’s worth, the United Nations does not mention sanctions in its definition of “acts of aggression,” and the aforementioned Navy handbook lists sanctions under “nonmilitary measures.”

Dunlap acknowledges room for interpretation with the phrase “act of war” because “it’s a political term, not a legal one.”

The U.N. Security Council has sanctioned Iran four times since 2006, with increasingly tougher actions, as Iran refused to halt uranium enrichment or address questions about its nuclear ambitions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The U.S. is not the only nation to impose unilateral sanctions against the republic. At least seven other nations — Canada, Japan, Switzerland, India, Israel, Australia and South Korea — have done the same.

Leverett argues that sanctioning doesn’t work. “It’s counterproductive,” he said. “It tells the Iranians they’re right — that the U.S. wants to get rid of them.”

Leverett instead promotes “serious diplomacy,” which he said should entail face-to-face discussions, clearly defining expectations for a peaceful nuclear program and accepting the right of Iran to exist as an enduring political entity. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — and Germany have met with Iranian counterparts several times in recent years to seek a solution to the impasse, but the incentives offered by the “P5 Plus One” have not enticed Iran to halt its program.

The Pinocchio Test

Foreign policy is often a murky area. Foreign policy experts may disagree about whether sanctions amount to acts of war, but the majority opinion is that they don’t.

But we found no basis for Paul’s conflation of the words “blockade” and “sanction.” One could forgive the congressman for choosing the wrong term in the heat of a debate, but the fact that he said “blockading” twice suggests he chose his language deliberately.

Yet under any definition of the word, the United States is not blockading Iran. Instead, Iran has threatened to cut off the world from international waters off its coast, though in recent days it appears to have backed off that threat.

Overall, Paul mischaracterized and exaggerated the actions the U.S. has taken to dissuade Iran from continuing its nuclear program. A presidential candidate should be more careful about making such allegations about U.S. actions.

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