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It’s no surprise that 47 Republican senators signed Tom Cotton’s open letter to Iran, including the Arkansas freshman himself. One name on that list that is a surprise: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

Paul is one of just two Republican senators who has opposed new sanctions that could derail the fragile nuclear talks with Iran. The other, Jeff Flake of Arizona, was one of seven Republicans who declined to sign Cotton’s letter. Paul has also been the most vocal about the need to let diplomacy run its course, because if it fails there is a risk of war.

So what gives? Most Senate Republicans are wrong about the substance of this issue — they at best favor making unrealistic demands the basis of any Iran diplomacy, at worst prefer military action — but they do have a point about the process questions. The Constitution gives the Senate a role in treaty ratification and there is a limit to a president’s ability to otherwise bind his successors and future Congresses to lesser agreements.

Paul is siding with the majority of his Republican colleagues on process, while still defending the negotiations and warning against war (at great political risk). While the letter is condescending in tone and counterproductive to diplomacy in spirit, it doesn’t say anything inaccurate about Congress’ legitimate constitutional prerogatives — and may not even tell the Iranians anything they don’t already know.

The political reality is that whatever impact the letter has on the negotiations, it was going to have with 46 signatures. Paul already supports Bob Corker’s bill to subject an Iran deal to a congressional vote. Consequently, there was no upside for Paul to deny Cotton a 47th signature and allow more hawkish rivals like Marco Rubio to continue to call him “the chief cheerleader of Obama’s foreign policy.”

Paul has been willing to take such risks when substantive matters are at stake –the context of Rubio’s jibe was Paul’s defense of President Obama on Cuba — but on things that are more symbolic, the cheap and false “Obama-Paul foreign policy” framing doesn’t do libertarians and less hawkish conservatives any good.

The question is what impact Cotton’s letter has on the substantive issue of getting a good nuclear deal with Iran, one that would avoid both a nuke in Tehran and a new Iraq-like preventive war. The answer to that question isn’t clear. In addition to driving hawkish Democrats away from the Corker-Mark Kirk-Robert Menendez coalition on Iran, the letter may convince the Iranians to take the best deal they are ever likely to get. Or it may give them a pretext to walk away from the negotiations, confident they can blame the United States and convince other countries to drop their sanctions.

The worst-case scenario isn’t a suboptimal deal, which the finished product is likely to be. The worst-case scenario is the collapse of the international sanctions and an end to inspections, which would increase the threat of an Iranian nuclear program. For that reason, I’d have preferred Paul not sign anything that could hurt the negotiations — the risk of failure is too high.

But by being the most prominent Republican opponent of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions and working with Barbara Boxer to develop an alternative to them, Paul is arguably doing more than any other single senator to slow the march to war. He is keeping nonmilitary options alive.

Some libertarians and conservatives are disappointed that Rand makes political concessions Ron Paul would not have. You have to ask this question: is the loss of purity outweighed by a gain in effectiveness? It’s great to vote against wars that are not in America’s interests.

It’s even better to stop them.

That’s ultimately how the younger Paul’s Iran maneuvers should be judged.

W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and the author of "Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped" (Regnery 2013). Follow him on Twitter @jimantle
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