Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Authoring Confusion: Iran, Islam, and Missing the Point
The politically contentious and much-debated Iran nuclear deal looks to be formalized in October, despite many efforts to stop it. While the deal itself (and broader American policy in the Islamic world) has much worthy of criticism, neither proponents of the deal nor its critics have fully presented the situation in a way that enables people to understand the deal’s goals and implications accurately. In particular, many Christian Americans tend to see current events in apocalyptic terms, and prominent Christian voices often discuss the Middle East and Islam with an extreme lack of nuance and a prominent spirit of fear. For them, Islam and Iran represent existential threats to God’s people. The Iran nuclear deal has been no exception.
And while major foreign policy initiatives like this one can be important factors in presidential campaigns, the rhetoric needs to be ratcheted down to arrive at a more realistic assessment of politics in the region and the effects of this deal. More importantly for us as Christians, we should also consider this agreement within the framework of Just War principles and our call to seek a life at peace with all as far as it depends on us.
A Closer Look at the Deal
The Iran nuclear deal is a fairly mundane agreement. Much of the one hundred plus- page document is a list of individuals and companies under economic sanctions, while the remainder focuses on the technicalities of development, quantity, and purity of enriched radioactive material in various facilities within Iran. The deal displays the true priorities of the Iranian regime-- preventing economic catastrophe at the hands of lingering sanctions.
It will be extraordinarily difficult under the conditions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is known, for Iran to complete developing a nuclear weapon without the other parties-- the E3/EU+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States)-- knowing about it. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will require hundreds of dedicated professionals to oversee the implementation of the agreement, and the cost to Iran to avoid detection and deceive the IAEA defies all probability.
Certainly there is good reason to be skeptical of the agreement. The Iran deal’s proponents would do well to acknowledge North Korea’s successful violation of its agreement with the United States regarding its nuclear program. Demonstrating an awareness of past failures to monitor and confront the rogue regime in North Korea would lend credibility to the arguments of those in favor of the deal. Proponents should also more openly acknowledge the connection between previous administration policies and the incentives Iran has to develop a nuclear weapon. For Iran, the Iraq War in particular has demonstrated that enemies of the United States without nuclear weapons will be invaded, whereas others with nuclear weapons, like North Korea, get negotiations. Iran also is highly aware of the unofficial nuclear arsenal that Israel possesses.
The deal with Iran creates time and space to defuse regional tension, if the Israelis, Saudis, and others give it a chance. It is not clear that they will, and Iran is largely to blame for this. While it has partnered with the global community to take on the threat of the so-called Islamic State, Iran has also been a major antagonist in its relations with the Sunni Gulf states, Israel, and the Levant. It has been a sponsor of terrorism around the world and regularly uses inflammatory rhetoric against Israel. Iranian hardliners have publicly insulted both the United States and Israel with apocalyptic language, enough to bring into question how seriously the Iranian clerics view the deal. Iran’s regime has done nothing to earn trust.
The Obama Administration has its own obstacles to rallying support for the deal. For one, it is not actually a treaty with the full force of the Constitution behind it, so it can only be considered an executive agreement. While executive agreements represent the lion’s share of American international agreements, this relegates the deal to a statement of administration policy, subject to change upon the inauguration of the next president.
A second issue has to do with an overly optimistic assessment of the effectiveness of the deal’s “snapback” mechanism of sanctions should the Iranian regime not live up to its commitments. The document only implies the restoration of sanctions rather than explicitly detailing how they will be applied. This shows a lack of political will for a new sanctions regime from the United Nations Security Council, particularly permanent members Russia and China.
It is also debatable whether the Iran nuclear deal includes all the important concerns in Iranian-American relations. Coming on the heels of the prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl, there has not been an adequate explanation for why the release of American prisoners in Iran was not a precondition for further negotiations on sanctions. Currently, four US citizens are imprisoned on vague charges of crimes against the Iranian regime ranging from espionage to religious apostasy. It is plausible that the nuclear deal establishes sufficient good faith to move on that issue, but for some observers, the decision is a confusing one. Equally concerning is the perception that the deadlines during negotiations were arbitrary, and there was actually more time to develop a more thorough agreement. Critics can point to this to argue that this process was more about the legacies of President Obama and Secretary Kerry than about American national interest.
Despite Flaws, a Step Forward
Despite all the potential shortcomings, the Iran nuclear deal is a net positive. Although there still may be war with Iran, the deal matters in two important ways. First, it is a clear opportunity for the Iranian regime to choose peace with its neighbors and the global community. The war against the Islamic State is a shared interest for the entire region and the major global powers. Having one more chance to prevent or postpone a confrontation aids the more pressing fight and, at a minimum, slows down nuclear proliferation.
Second, despite the ambiguity in the deal’s semantics, it implies the consequences of reapplying economic and political sanctions on Iran should it fail to meet its obligations. Most of the impact of economic sanctions falls on ordinary Iranians. While it will be difficult to regain the support of Russia, China, and others to a new sanctions regime, the presence of the deal gives the next presidential administration a template should it need to lead the American public towards a more forceful response to Iran. Additionally, the deal and the consequences for defection remove ambiguity about whether the Iranian regime is ultimately responsible for the economic suffering of its people. The notion that Iran’s potential suffering stems from a capricious policy arbitrarily imposed by the West becomes much less credible under a formalized agreement like this one.
The Obama Administration should seize this moment with the Iran nuclear deal to reassert American global leadership. The United States should be at the forefront of confronting the evils of nuclear proliferation and instability. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia are showing decisiveness in advancing their regional interests. Regardless of the wisdom of other nations’ actions in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, the perception of American reticence is opening the door for forces acting without the collective good in mind. Peaceful reconciliation along the lines of the deal is the first step in preventing a greater humanitarian crisis.
The Administration should strongly articulate the merits of the deal to the domestic and international audiences, rather than lashing out at Democrats who don’t toe the line. This will elevate the discourse above petty politics, and it will counter the loss of credibility from President Obama’s “red-line” fiasco in our dealings with Syria. When we allowed Assad to openly massacre civilians with chemical weapons without following through on promised consequences, Islamist extremists and the Syrian regime were both emboldened. Each ebb and flow of the civil war then created new waves of refugees. An America at the forefront of formulating policy is the only way to truly address such large-scale humanitarian disasters. A forceful push to implement the agreement with Iran opens the door to a comprehensive response to the twin crises of Syria and Iraq. Right now, Putin’s Russia is setting that agenda.
However, I fear that many American political and religious leaders truly want military confrontation with Iran, having failed to learn the lessons of the last decade about the limits of military power as a tool of foreign policy. A war with Iran would be more difficult than the one with Iraq in every conceivable way. Any feasible military options postpone, but do not ultimately prevent, an Iranian nuclear weapon. Only diplomacy convincing the Iranians that the economic benefits of peace outweigh the prestige and security of nuclear weapons will ultimately stabilize the situation. The nuclear deal, while flawed, has the best chance today for actual counter proliferation success.
Overcoming the Spirit of Fear
So how does a Christian faith perspective intersect with the politics of the Iran nuclear deal? While this may not have an obvious or straightforward response, we should return to the framework put forth at the beginning of this article and begin with the simple question of whether we are seeking to be at peace with all, so long as it depends on us (Romans 12:18). We are not meant to look for opportunities for confrontation, and we must confront the pervasive ignorance on all things Islamic. The Iran nuclear deal gives the global community one more chance to avoid war. That is a blessing for all the innocent people who would without a doubt be casualties in such an event. For every family saved from hurt, for every refugee not created, we can and should rejoice.
We must also question how popular “end times” theology reflexively shapes American Christians’ views on international relations. For some, this means a knee-jerk support for Israel, regardless of the objective interests of the United States or humanity at large. For others, our eschatology eschews dialogue and peacebuilding in the name of promoting confrontations with the Islamic world. The irony of this is that the Iranian regime is regularly accused of doing the exact thing in the name of Shi’a Islam.
Just War principles derived from centuries of Christian thought demand that war be a last resort and have limited aims to right specific wrongs. This is an untenable standard for those who would use nuclear weapons, and it also presents an ethical constraint on carrying out preventative war by a nuclear weapons state. In other words, how do we punish the Iranians for doing the same thing that we and our allies do? The fact that a feasible agreement can be reached shows us clearly that we are not at the point of last resort with Iran. Aggression against Iran prior to their breaking of a non-existent pact is unwise and unconscionable.
We must turn to study, self-discipline, and calm reflection on God’s word as opposed to actively seeking out conflict with the Islamic world. The second chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy lends an important perspective here. For Paul, study of the word prevented being led astray by false doctrine. Understanding how the complicated pieces fit together in international diplomacy can undercut the hyperbolic rhetoric we are prone to hearing in politics. We are not given a spirit of fear, or cowardice, as some translations state (2 Timothy 1:7). A nuanced, sober approach to foreign policy flows more naturally when the spirit is at ease and not overwhelmed by fear.
This mindset should also apply to how Christians view the politics of Israel and its neighbors. The issues facing the Middle East cannot be addressed in a vacuum. So many of the problems Iran causes in the region are connected to its animosity towards Israel. American support of Israel’s right to exist in peace with its neighbors should be paired with a push for the dignity of all peoples in the territories under Israeli control and reductions in all the world’s nuclear weapons programs. Israelis have legitimate fears of Iranian rhetoric and the regime’s clandestine support for terrorism. Though he has yet to offer workable alternatives to negotiations, Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks for a majority of his constituents who see the deal as an existential threat. The United States can ease fears by continuing its support of the Iron Dome project to destroy rockets that regularly target Israeli civilians, as well as insistence upon an end to attacks on Israel from Iranian proxies.
As Christians, our call to uphold the common good means that we should be actively engaged in the complex concerns of our political community, careful of letting ideology and partisanship trump the principles of love, grace, and doing real study on the difficult issues of the day. This is particularly important as we enter into a relentless election season where campaign rhetoric often drowns out real thought, and arguments over issues like the Iran nuclear deal become flashpoints for partisan wrangling rather than opportunities for a sober assessment of the world’s needs.
Questions for Reflection:
- What fears influence our views of foreign policy and negotiating with hostile entities?
- Where should we go to study the complicated issues of interfaith conflict?
- Do you believe war between the United States and Iran is inevitable?
- Daniel Allen is Associate Professor of Political Science and director of the Global Studies program at Anderson University in Indiana. His research focuses on American foreign policy.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”