US, Iran and Prudential Judgment

April 18 was “National Army Day” in Iran. As usual, this event was marked by parades and displays of the might and machinery of the Iranian military. And also, as usual, there were signs and chants from the crowds that proclaimed bluntly, “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” In addition, the U.S. Department of State still lists Iran a “country determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

Yet there were also signs of a more conciliatory attitude from the Iranian leadership. According to the Times of Israel, President Hassan Rouhani, speaking at the army event, said Iran was adopting “a strategy of deterrence in order to prepare for peace and security in Iran and the Middle East. ... Our method of action is defense not offense.”

Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, told CNN that Iran would be working together with the United States and its allies to confront the aggression of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Iraq. Firouzabadi spoke of the threat to universal human rights posed by ISIS and the need for the community of nations to confront them.

Almost simultaneous with these developments, however, U.S. and Saudi Arabian forces found themselves opposed to Iranian efforts to overthrow the government in Yemen. The United States has dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and a flotilla of nine other ships to intercept the Iranian attempts to arm the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

And if all this were not confusing enough, the United States, along with the P5+1 negotiation partners (U.S., U.K., France, China, Russia and Germany), has recently concluded a “framework agreement” with Iran that would regulate the Iranian development of nuclear technologies. This framework is the first step towards a more comprehensive agreement that, it is hoped, will be concluded by June 30.

How should Catholics in the United States react to all of this news? Is Iran a partner and ally in the worldwide fight against ISIS and its ilk? An ongoing state sponsor of terror and a threat to the very existence of Israel? A cooperative member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty looking to enhance the peaceful use of nuclear power? A potential enemy at sea, in the air and on the ground in Yemen? A trusted partner in a comprehensive agreement that would allow United Nations inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to sensitive research sites? A nation desperately in need of the lifting of crippling sanctions that have seriously damaged its economy and the lives of average Iranians (especially the poorest Iranians)?

The answer to all these questions is a tentative and qualified Yes. And, despite all the obvious ambiguity, this is why Pope Francis and Catholic leaders in the United States are strongly supporting the framework recently negotiated with Iran on the use and development of nuclear technologies.

An explanation is in order, however. No one is naïve about the problematic nature of the Iranian regime. Bishop Oscar Cantú, bishop of the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M., and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, has recognized in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons is “unacceptable.” Bishop Cantú wrote: “As we have noted in the past, Iran has threatened its neighbors, especially Israel, and contributed to instability in the region.”

Despite these grave reservations, however, the U.S. bishops and Pope Francis have made the prudential judgment that the proposed framework is the best course when compared to the alternatives. Bishop Cantú writes:

“Despite the challenges, it is vital to continue to foster an environment in which all parties can build mutual confidence and trust in order to work towards a final accord that enhances peace. For this reason, our committee will continue to oppose congressional efforts that seek to undermine the negotiation process or make a responsible multiparty agreement more difficult to achieve and implement.”

This sentiment echoes the prayer of Pope Francis in his message and blessing urbi et orbi on Easter Sunday: “In hope, we entrust to the merciful Lord the framework recently agreed to in Lausanne, that it may be a definitive stop towards a more secure and fraternal world.”

Much work remains to be done. For example, there are still differences in how far-reaching the IAEA inspections will be (certain military sites are still being discussed) and how quickly the various economic sanctions will be lifted (immediately or in phases and/or only after IAEA certifies compliance, etc.).

Many may ask, however, why the Church would encourage negotiating with Iran and trusting any agreement that was reached with her — especially while Iran still violates the human rights of her own citizens, imprisons Christians like American pastor Saeed Abedini and reporters like The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, supports terrorists, threatens Israel, backs dictatorial regimes like Syria and foments revolutions throughout the Middle East.

Quite frankly, Church leaders believe — and the evidence seems to back their prudential judgment on the matter — that the alternatives are worse.

Economic sanctions against Iran cannot continue forever. Many sectors of the Iranian economy have already been devastated. Furthermore, as is usually the case in these matters, the poor and vulnerable are suffering the most.

Second, a war against Iran would be a massive undertaking that would have far-reaching consequences. Retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, has stated in an interview with Salon:

“If we attacked Iran, they would go nuclear. If we attacked Iran, it would take 500,000 troops, 10 years and trillions of dollars. Alexander the Great almost died in Iran. You don’t want to invade Iran. Iran has 75 million people. It’s the most stable country in the region.”

A third alternative is an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Enlarging the membership of the already too large “nuclear club” is highly problematic — especially at a time when the Church is admirably working towards worldwide nuclear disarmament and has begun to seriously question the morality of the conditional intent to attack the innocent, which is involved in nuclear-deterrence theory.

The best of the many bad options — ranging from the less than optimal to the near-catastrophic — is to enter into a framework with Iran that will bring both the prospect of frequent international inspections and the lifting of the harshest of economic sanctions in Iran.

What if the deal evaporates or Iran reneges on its commitments? Then the economic sanctions could be started again. And if the Iranian threat to Israel (or others) became truly imminent, then the just-war doctrine does allow for a measured, proportionate defensive strike.

Hopefully what everyone should see fairly clearly by now is that we do not need another war of choice against a large Middle-Eastern Muslim nation under the illusion that such wars place us on the path to a more tranquil order.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, S.T.D, is the seventh president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas.

A 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Rhodes Scholar,

he also serves as professor of Christian ethics and leadership at Donnelly College.