Must U.S. Catholics Back the Iran Nuclear Deal?

NEWS ANALYSIS: Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops endorse the accord, but Catholic authorities and the public are divided.

President Barack Obama speaks bout the nuclear deal reached with Iran during a speech on Aug. 5 at American University in Washington.
President Barack Obama speaks bout the nuclear deal reached with Iran during a speech on Aug. 5 at American University in Washington. (photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The complex, high-stakes Iran nuclear deal was supposed to be President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement.

But the agreement to contain Iran’s nuclear ability in return for lifting economic sanctions has sparked anger and skepticism, as well as cautious support on Capitol Hill and among the public.

The White House has defended the pact as the only alternative to the path to war. Congress has 60 days to endorse or reject it.

But on Capitol Hill, growing concerns about the accord have crossed party lines, and on Aug. 6, in the wake of an intense lobbying campaign by organizations that believe the accord poses a danger to Israel’s security, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would not support it.

Thus far, however, there has been no change in the Holy See and the U.S. bishops’ steady support for such an accord, even as the Obama administration has been criticized for making too many concessions to Iran to secure a deal that restricts the country’s nuclear stockpiles, centrifuges and research for 15 years.

“The agreement on the Iranian nuclear program is viewed in a positive light by the Holy See,” stated a Vatican spokesman in June, as talks with Iran appeared to be gaining traction, after 20 months of negotiations that involved the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

On Aug. 9, the 70th anniversary of the U.S. military’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II, Pope Francis called for an end to all nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago ought to serve as a permanent warning to humanity in order “to repudiate her forever from war and to banish nuclear arms and every weapon of mass destruction,” he said.


Prudential Judgment

The Church had registered its support for the Iran nuclear deal in the months leading up to the conclusion of the negotiations. But it has issued no public statements during the last three bruising weeks on Capitol Hill, as the Obama administration defended controversial elements of the accord, including the fact that it did not permanently dismantle Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

Now, as the president himself admits the accord will not eliminate the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program or call a halt to its promotion of terrorism in the Middle East, some Catholics have questioned whether the bishops’ stance affirms Catholic moral and social teaching, or whether it remains a matter of prudential judgment on which people of goodwill may disagree.

Asked to comment on this matter, Bradley Lewis, an authority on political philosophy at The Catholic University of America, clarified that the Church’s position on the accord is “a matter of prudential judgment.”

“Our Lord calls on us to be peacemakers, and the making of peace is one of the greatest responsibilities of statesmen, but so is the maintenance of a just peace; and precisely how to do this most effectively is something over which there can be a great deal of disagreement,” Lewis told the Register.

At present, U.S. lawmakers and foreign-policy experts are studying the critical elements of the lengthy agreement, such as the mechanism for monitoring Iran’s compliance with the accord and the likelihood that Iran could hide evidence of any future violations. This kind of evaluation is beyond the Church’s competency, Lewis noted.

“Most of the matters that must be considered … involve the attempt to predict the consequences of various courses of action. One can accept the very basic principle that peace is a crucial goal and still disagree about these particular questions.”

Further, while the U.S. bishops have linked their endorsement of the Iran deal to the Holy See’s support for “diplomacy to ensure Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” Lewis drew a bright line between Vatican foreign policy and the teachings of the magisterium.

“The Vatican’s own foreign-policy positions are made up mostly of prudential judgments by members of the Vatican’s own diplomatic corps and those who advise them on these matters,” he said. 

“They deserve very respectful consideration by Catholics, but they are not binding in any straightforward way,” he stated.

In his July 14 letter to Congress, Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, N.M., the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, expressed his hope that “the full implementation of the agreement will gradually foster an environment in which all parties build mutual confidence and trust, so that progress will be made toward greater stability and dialogue in the region.”

“The alternative,” predicted Bishop Cantú, “leads toward armed conflict, an outcome of profound concern to the Church.”


Path to Stability

However, Robert Royal, the president of the Faith & Reason Institute and editor of The Catholic Thing blog, questioned whether the accord offered the most predictable path to stable relations with Iran.

“There are opposing ways to view the current deal: President Obama thinks it gives us some breathing space and acceptable verification procedures,” Royal told the Register. However, “countries with as different interests as Jordan (moderate Muslim), Saudi Arabia (strict Sunni) and Israel are all terrified by the result of the negotiations.”

“These are the countries that will bear the immediate brunt if Iran cheats on the nuclear rules and uses new economic opening to spread terror even further,” he added.

Royal thinks that the present regime of economic sanctions was a better bet for containing Iran. And he questioned whether “the Church has sufficiently given weight to those Arab and Jewish voices in the region, or others.”

Bishop Cantú was traveling and unavailable for comment at press time, so it is not yet clear whether the U.S. bishops’ conference may also have concerns with elements of the deal.

Meanwhile, a Quinnipiac University poll, released on Aug. 3, found that 57% of respondents opposed the accord, while just 28% viewed it favorably.

However, experts who back the deal contend that it provides a fresh opportunity to begin a new dialogue with Iran.

“One way to turn an unstable enemy into a friend is by reopening economic engagement. This will lead to greater security in the long run,” Maryann Cusimano Love, an associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.

“This is better than the Bush policy. The ‘axis of evil’ [policy] wasn’t working,” she added, in a reference to President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech, which referred to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil” that sought to secure nuclear weapons that could end up in the hands of terrorist groups and thus threatened global security. “This is a step to take this in a new direction, as we have with Cuba.”

Some opponents of the deal are concerned that Iran’s neighbors will be under pressure to develop their own military response to counter an expected surge in Iranian intervention.

“It will trigger a nuclear-arms race that further destabilizes the region, increase Iran’s influence over Iraq, and increase the already-grave threat to Israel, by ensuring the continued dominance of radical Shiite clerics in Iran,” Thomas Farr, visiting associate professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, told the Register. 


Military's Qualified Support

U.S. military leaders have offered qualified support for the accord.

“If followed, the deal addresses one critical — and the most dangerous — point of friction with the Iranian regime,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated during his July 29 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“But as I’ve stated repeatedly, there are at least five other malign activities which give us and our regional partners concern,” Dempsey added.

Those activities by Iran, he continued, “run the gamut, from ballistic-missile technology to weapons trafficking, to the use of surrogates and proxies to naval mines and undersea activity, and last but not least to malicious activity in cyberspace.”

Dempsey described his position as pragmatic, rather than lukewarm, and it may help win support for the deal. But many opponents remain unconvinced.

At present, there is no sign, and no reason to expect, that Pope Francis or the U.S. bishops will alter their positions. The Holy See is following a well-worn path of support for multilateral agreements, even when that approach stirs skepticism from experts like Robert Royal and ordinary Catholics.

“At the moment, it seems all concession for them and a slim hope for us that the main sponsor of terror in the region will somehow change,” said Royal. “It’s not a good bet.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.