Iran Nukes Restart War Debate

WASHINGTON — As Iran’s president continues to taunt the Western world about its nuclear program, Americans find themselves faced with many of the same questions that arose prior to the Iraq War.

Chief among them is whether one should consider the use of force against a nation that does not yet pose an imminent threat but is striving to do so.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shown himself more than willing to antagonize the West with heated rhetoric while simultaneously keeping the world in the dark about the progress of Iran’s nuclear program.

As this story went to press March 6, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation board of governors met to consider a report by its Director General Mohammed El-Baradei, which said that Iran had ignored a Feb. 4 board resolution urging it to shelve uranium-enrichment work to ease the crisis, according to a Reuters report.

Iran maintained it wants the nuclear program for peaceful means, not nuclear weapons.

According to Reuters, Iran is testing 20 centrifuges capable of producing enriched uranium — which can serve as either fuel for nuclear power reactors or as the raw material for atom bombs — and is planning to install 3,000 centrifuges later this year.

U.S. diplomatic outreach to Iran through the European Union and Russia faltered, and there was a general feeling last week that the matter could be referred to the United Nations Security Council.

A Security Council resolution to require Iran to once again allow the international inspections of nuclear facilities they had been allowing earlier could be a “crossing of the Rubicon” toward either Iranian cooperation or war, said Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The good news, Clawson said, is that there is still time. The Iranians would need to operate hundreds if not thousands of centrifuges in order to produce enough uranium to seriously threaten nuclear war.

“This is the equivalent of their being a couple of weeks pregnant,” he said. “They’re still a long way from giving birth — but they are pregnant.”

Clawson said there is hope that Iran will agree to inspections. “I think you’re going to find a lot of optimists in the Bush administration who believe that the Iranians will cooperate,” he said. But he added that there is no guarantee of this, and that Ahmadinejad’s words continue to cause concern worldwide.

Just War Theory

Everyone agrees that Iran is an emerging threat, if still a gestational one. The question is whether the world’s most powerful nation, the United States, should intervene in order to prevent the anticipated harm that a nuclear Iran could create. Would a military intervention in order to prevent an “imminent” threat from materializing be morally right through the eyes of the Catholic teaching on just war?

The answer is not nearly as simple as one would hope. The Church has always taught that war ought to be avoided but is at times necessary. For centuries, theologians have spelled out the conditions under which nations are justified in going to war.

For the standard just war theory, as laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2309), see the sidebar.

In the case of Iraq, Pope John Paul II and every bishop in the world who issued a statement on the topic saw no just cause for an allied invasion. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, was dismissive of claims that “preventive war” could be just.

A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops referred the Register to a letter from its former president, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, to President Bush in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. Archbishop Gregory wrote he was “deeply concerned about recent proposals to expand dramatically traditional limits on ‘just cause’ to include preventive uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with weapons of mass destruction.”

A few prominent Catholic thinkers in America, such as Michael Novak and George Weigel, have proposed that because of the changing nature of threats in the modern world — for example, weapons of mass destruction and potential terrorist cooperation with rogue states — a pre-emptive attack is at times the only way to avoid grave harm.

“One of the urgent questions for morally serious statecraft today is how to gauge the gravity of certain threats today,” said Weigel, a theologian and biographer of Pope John Paul II. He cited as an example “the threat posed by a political regime that has shown contempt for international law, that has no internal restraints on its behavior, and that possesses or is likely to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”

However, most theologians worldwide reject the idea that a first, pre-emptive use of force can be justified using traditional just war theory.

“It seems to go against the idea that force is invoked in defense,” said Bill Portier, a theology professor at the University of Dayton. “Here you’re going to go and figure that everyone is a potential enemy. It’s not a position that I’m very happy with, but it’s one that intelligent people hold.”

Portier said that in many cases, an American policy of containing dangerous states would keep the peace just as well as war, even if it does not preserve America’s spot as the world’s strongest nation. By negotiation, said Portier, “we would be giving up a position of advantage that we perceive ourselves as having.”

Weigel dismisses this criticism, noting that in modern times, non-military means of conflict resolution had often made diplomatic situations more dangerous rather than less dangerous.

“There are circumstances in which negotiations and non-military pressures are unlikely to produce the desired result, and in fact may strengthen the hand of aggressors by allowing them more time to do very bad things,” he said. Weigel gave Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an example, but one could also point to European attempts to negotiate with Adolf Hitler while he secretly plotted aggressive war against all of Europe.

Weigel said that in the case of Iran, he believes all-out war can be avoided, but some action — perhaps an American-backed revolution — would be needed to put a stop to Ahmadinejad’s aggressive behavior.

“The current president of Iran is already threatening Iran’s neighbors,” he noted. “Both European statesmen and the Bush administration have made clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is not acceptable. The best resolution in Iran is one in which the people of Iran liberate themselves from the tyranny under which they’ve been living for decades, and Iran rejoins the community of responsible nations.”

Still, prior to becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed doubts about the notion of pre-emptive war. Cardinal Ratzinger flatly stated in September 2002 that the “concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

In 2003, he went further, saying that “given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war.’”

David Freddoso writes

from Washington, D.C.



The Catechism on War

2307 — The Fifth Commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

2308 — All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.

However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

 2309 — The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

— the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;

— all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

— there must be serious prospects of success;

— the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.