Catholic leaders caution against war with Iran as tensions escalate

Posted on Jun 25, 2019

by Kevin Clarke, America’s chief correspondent and the author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press).

May 20, 2019This report was significantly updated on June 20 with new content from Catholic News Service.

As tensions rose further in the Gulf of Oman after U.S. officials accused Iran of playing a role in two more attacks on merchant shipping transiting through the Strait of Hormuz, the chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for International Justice and Peace urged dialogue and restraint. In a letter to the Trump administration released to the public on June 19, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services called on the Trump administration to avoid a military confrontation and to seek “sustained dialogue…to de-escalate the current situation that is a danger to both the region and the world.”

Archbishop Broglio told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “There is little probability that another war in the most volatile region in the world, where the recent and current experiences of conflict in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are vivid, will succeed in bringing peace to the region.

“A different approach is needed,” he added. “The president’s recent statement that the United States does not seek war with Iran is encouraging.”

Mr. Pompeo told reporters on June 18 after a meeting with U.S. military leaders at U.S. Central Command in Florida that Mr. Trump “does not want war.” However, he said, the U.S. presence in the region was meant as a deterrent to Iran’s threats. On June 20 the Iranian Revolutionary Guard said it shot down a U.S. military drone that had violated Iranian air space. The U.S. military confirmed the loss of the drone but insisted that it had been flying over international waters.

Iranian officials have denied any involvement with the recent attacks on ships in the gulf and said Iranian military will defend Iranian national interests.

On June 16 Pope Francis called for diplomacy to head off any confrontation.

“I invite everyone to use the instruments of diplomacy to resolve the complex problems of the conflicts in the Middle East,” he said after celebrating Mass in Camerino, Italy, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2016. “I renew a heartfelt appeal to the international community to make every possible effort to favor dialogue and peace.”

President Trump has said that the U.S. withdrawal from the so-called P5+1 pact has made the world a safer place. France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, along with Germany, remain parties to the deal, which international monitoring agencies have confirmed that Iran continues to follow. However, Iran announced on June 17 that it could soon start enriching uranium to just beneath weapons-grade level.

In response, the Pentagon ordered 1,000 more troops to the Middle East. The step is seen as an effort to deter Iran and ease concerns among allies about the security of vital shipping lanes.

The escalation of tensions this month was preceded by a series of events in May that suggested the possibility of open conflict breaking out between the United States and Iran.

Many Americans were startled on May 5 when John Bolton, the national security advisor, announced that the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group had been rushed from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf to counter “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran. His threat assessment went without much further elaboration.

They barely had time to ponder the implications of that potential deployment when on May 13 the public learned that the Trump administration was evaluating a war contingency plan with Iran that would deliver 120,000 U.S. troops into combat against the Islamic republic. Since then, four oil tankers were targeted in apparent acts of sabotage off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and a drone attack was launched on a Saudi pipeline. Tensions ratcheted up on May 15, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered the evacuation of nonessential staff from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, and from the consulate in Erbil, in Iraqi-Kurdistan territory, in response to another undefined Iranian threat.

The escalation caught a lot of Americans off-guard; less surprised was George Lopez, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies: “I think for most of us who are monitoring what’s been going on over the last two years, this is not sudden.”

Mr. Lopez explained that tensions with Iran have been on the rise for at least 18 months, beginning with the President Trump’s decision in October 2017 to “disavow” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That multilateral agreement intended to end any potential nuclear weapons development by Iran in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions and the normalization of relations with Western states. In May 2018, the president pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal altogether.

There was no diplomatic initiative attached to the U.S. withdrawal, “no visible strategy,” said Mr. Lopez. “Sanctions are not only meant to enrage and punish a target, but to find a way to engage a target. There was no strategy to get [Iran] to the table,” he said. There was only a sense that “we are going to drive you to the ground because of who you are and we’re going to keep our foot on your neck until you cry uncle.”

And this month the increasingly bellicose rhetoric and actions emerging from the Trump administration under the guidance of Mr. Bolton have meant a sudden surge of alarm in the region. Will it mean another war in the Middle East?

“We’re watching October through March of 2003 all over again,” Mr. Lopez said, calling the current approach to Iran a replay of the lead-up to the Bush administration’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein. “But the possible consequences here are so much more dramatic than in Iraq,” he warned.

Tobias Winright is associate professor of Theological Ethics at Saint Louis University in Missouri. “Obviously, given what was experienced in Iraq and the wake of Iraq, I think we’re justified in being skeptical” about the administration’s claims so far, “even more so than usual about such things,” Mr. Winright said.

Filtering the administration’s rhetoric through the Catholic just war tradition, Mr. Winright has difficulty confirming the legitimacy of a conflict at this time with Iran.

“Is there really a threat here?” he asked. The administration needs to share much more information with Congress and the public to make that case, he said. The church has never supported the concept of a preventive war, that is, not a strike to deflect a grave and imminent threat but an offensive move intended to diminish a potential enemy.

“What is the just cause here? Do we have the right intent? Are we trying to promote a just and lasting peace in the region?” These are questions he does not believe the Trump administration has so far adequately addressed.

“I’m not a pacifist,” Mr. Winright said, “and I do believe military force is sometimes justified, but good reasons have to be given.” He has not heard them yet.

Mr. Winright added that because it had essentially cut off a diplomatic route to the mediation of the conflict and resists acting through multilateral institutions like the United Nations, it would be difficult for the administration to meet just war standards of legitimate authority and to prove that a resort to armed conflict truly represents a last recourse.

But even if it could demonstrate legitimate cause, a U.S. strike against Iran still might not be justified, he said, if it would “lead to greater evils than the ones we’re seeking to avoid.”

He is concerned about the fate of many non-combatants who would be put in harm’s way by a U.S.-Iranian conflict, especially ethnic and religious minorities in northern Iraq like the Yazidi and the Chaldean, Armenian and Syriac Christians.

“Even if it’s a surgical strike that respects noncombatant immunity, what will the ripple effects of that be? What about blowback?”

And as more military hardware moves into the Persian Gulf, Mr. Lopez said that the danger of an accidental conflict dramatically increases. He added that other unpredictable agents are also at work in the region. “Here we have, foaming at the mouth, the Saudis and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, who can’t wait to see the fight [between the United States and Iran] happen and who have big stakes in it.”

The United States is perceived as an ally of Saudi Arabia, thus a legitimate target to militias in Yemen who may operate outside of Iranian control, Mr, Lopez pointed out. A strike against U.S. forces by one of these militias could trigger a broader conflict.

Mr. Lopez has been troubled by the Trump administration’s apparent disconnect and disarray in its approach to Iran even within its own team of national security and military planners. The president’s tweeted denials that open war is his administration’s goal have not exactly been reassuring when it remains uncertain who is setting policy, Mr. Lopez said.

Mr. Lopez is also concerned with the breakdown of congressional order he has been witnessing as tensions with Iran mounted. He noted that Mr. Bolton’s boasting of more or less personally dispatching a carrier group to the Persian Gulf was demonstrated to be untrue just a few days later by Pentagon reporters, who learned that the deployment had been planned for weeks.

That misrepresentation should have triggered an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he argues. Similarly the loose talk about the deployment of 120,000 troops should have led to hearings by the Senate’s Armed Services Committee. So far there is little indication of a significant response from either of these GOP-led committees.

“We don’t have anyone stepping up” in Congress, he complained. “No committee or journalist has asked what I want to know: What happens the day after [a U.S.] attack” on Iran or its regional surrogates?

He shares Mr. Winright’s concern about the fate of the remnant Christian community in Iraq’s Nineveh Province. They have slowly been returning to communities devastated by occupation by ISIS militants and the effort to dislodge those Islamic extremists in 2016-2017, and they now live among Shiite militia members and their families. How will they be protected in the aftermath of a U.S. strike against Iran or one of its Shiite surrogates in northern Iraq?

Discussions of the growing U.S.-Iran confrontation have so far drawn “no linkage to the Yemeni war,” said Mr. Lopez. But the idea that this conflict could somehow be “compartmentalized” between the United States and Iran is ridiculous, he said, arguing that a war with Iran would have huge repercussions across the Middle East. Noting the fragility of the peace in Iraq and in parts of Syria where fighting has ended and the ongoing bloodshed in Yemen, he added, “If you want to set this whole region on fire, escalate the conflict with Iran.”