On Christmas Eve I reported about a group of “Christian leaders” who were calling on the US government to initiate harsh sanctions against Iran. Their lobbying contributed to an overwhelming House of Representatives vote (412-12) in support of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which seeks to cut off Tehran’s importation of refined petroleum products, amounting to 40% of its energy needs, and bring the country’s economy to its knees. The supporters of the House resolution believe that pressuring Iran in that fashion will somehow convince its government to alter its nuclear energy policy.
Others argue, however, that the sanctions will not influence the Iranian government in the least and that the pain experienced as a result will fall most heavily on the Iranian people who will be unable to heat their homes and will likely lose their jobs as the economy contracts. As the sanctions would punish any country that does business with Iran, the risk of blowback on the American economy is chilling. Congressman Ron Paul observed, "Are we to conclude, with this in mind, that China or its major state-owned corporations will be forbidden by this legislation from doing business with the United States? What of our other trading partners who currently do business in Iran’s petroleum sector or insure those who do so? Has anyone seen an estimate of how this sanctions act will affect the US economy if it is actually enforced?" Nevertheless some in Washington apparently would like to think that the sanctions will somehow force the Iranian people to rise up against their rulers, leading to a bloodbath followed by some kind of regime change that would usher in an era of democracy and freedom.
Not content with their victory in the House of Representatives, the Christian leaders did it again, urging the Senate to follow the House’s lead. On January 26th, they sent a letter to the leaders of the Senate demanding passage of “tough sanctions on Iran to prevent that terrorist sponsoring regime from obtaining nuclear weapons.” The Senate obliged two days later, passing the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act overwhelmingly on a voice vote. The first signature on the Christian leaders’ letter was that of Pat Robertson, who recently stated that the Haitian people are being punished by God because they made a pact with the devil back in 1804. Other prominent signatories are Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and John Hagee of Christians United for Israel who once insisted "I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God" when hurricane Katrina hit. There are forty-two other signatories, mostly evangelical Christians with a sprinkling of Catholics, and also including some who have no apparent religious affiliation at all.
The Christian leaders’ letter incorporates a number of half truths and untruths. This is how the letter summarizes the case against Iran: “…we must remember that Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, is funding Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza, has sought to destabilize democratic and Western-leaning regimes throughout the Middle East, is currently arresting and detaining political opponents, actively persecutes its Christian citizens, has shot protestors in cold blood in the streets, and its president has denied the Holocaust and vowed to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. We speak out today on behalf of millions of Christians who believe that the interests of peace and security would best be served by our elected representatives sending a powerful signal that this tyrannical Iranian regime shall never threaten the world with nuclear weapons.” The letter also states that “Iran will sell or give nuclear weapons to extremist groups.” In a separate Baptist press release by Richard Land he asserts that Iran has a “defiant insistence on building nuclear weapons” which he also describes as a “maniacal quest” and that it calls for the “violent expansion of radical Islam.” To ice the cake, he notes that Tehran has “facilitated the development of improvised explosive devices that have killed US troops.”
Most actual experts on developments in Iran believe that sanctions will most hurt the Iranian people and will actually discredit reformers, making the regime stronger and heightening the paranoia that might lead to demands for nuclear weapons for self-defense. Even if one accepts that Iran’s form of government is not a model for humankind and that claims that it has arrested and detained political opponents and even shot protesters are true, Tehran’s treatment of its own people is not necessarily Washington’s business. One can cite offhand a number of other governments that are guilty of the same well-documented crimes, including US friends like Israel and Egypt. Christians in Iran can worship freely and are not persecuted though they cannot proselytize and while there is some discrimination they are treated better than in many of Iran’s neighbors. And the rest of the Christian leaders’ arguments are either speculative or unsupported by facts. Iran’s most recent elections were far from perfect but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad clearly won the presidency. Hezbollah and Hamas are terrorists from the point of view of Israel, which continues to occupy Palestinian land and part of south Lebanon. But they are also respected political parties in Gaza and Lebanon that won democratic elections and they do not threaten the United States. Land’s trump card, that they “are killing our troops” is straight out of the emotional playbook of Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman while Iran’s role in the development of so-called improvised explosive devices is at best unproven.
It is unclear what regimes the Christian leaders believe Iran is destabilizing and the effort, if it is indeed underway, must be particularly unsuccessful as no government in the region appears to be endangered. Assertions that Iran would destroy Israel are deliberate mistranslations of a direct quote from the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from some twenty years ago that "this regime (the partisan government) occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time." Not the nation of Israel. And Tehran is not alone in criticizing the political exploitation of the Holocaust, the most vocal critics being found in Israel and the United States. Finally, there is the core issue of nuclear weapons and terrorist ties. To put it succinctly, Iran does not have any nuclear weapons and it is by no means clear that it ever intends to acquire any. Yukiya Amano, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said just last year that he had not seen any evidence in IAEA official documents that Iran was seeking the ability to develop nuclear weapons, and our own government’s Congressional Research Service recently issued a paper stating US intelligence believes Iran ended "nuclear weapon design and weaponization work" in 2003. Iran has no ties with international terrorist groups that target the United States and it is exceedingly unlikely that the country would spend billions of dollars to develop a weapon for deterrence only to hand it over to a terrorist. If it did so, the response from the US and Israel would, to say the least, be Apocalyptic and Iran would cease to exist on the following day.
And, apart from the lack of veracity in the letter, there is a broader question, which is to what extent people who call themselves Christians should be rejecting restraint and negotiation while advocating policies that will certainly result in suffering and quite likely will lead to war. It is not necessary to be a pacifist to be a Christian, but neither should Christians be cheerleaders for war. Christ’s teachings are clear. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Later in the Gospel of Matthew in the Garden of Gethsemane he warned his disciples that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Christ also told his followers “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies…”
I do not know what the positions of the various Christian leaders who signed the letter were on the issue of Iraq in 2002-3. I rather suspect that most supported sanctions, which killed half a million Iraqi children and that were dismissed by Secretary of State Madeline Albright as being “worth it.” I would also guess that most fully supported the subsequent US led invasion of a country which did not threaten the United States in any way. The lowest estimate of confirmed deaths by violence in Iraq since the American invasion is 95,000, a number that most investigators would agree is way too low as it relies only on official records of fatalities. Some estimates of deaths go as high as 650,000. And then there is the collateral damage that continues to take a toll. There are forty contamination sites in Iraq left behind by coalition forces that contain high levels of dioxins and nuclear waste, including the depleted uranium used in American artillery rounds. Several sites are near large towns and cities. Falluja, which was the scene of fighting between US forces and insurgents in 2004, is experiencing 15 times the normal rate of birth defects as well as a spike in cancer among adults. One baby was born with two heads and others have multiple tumors and spinal defects. Is it unfair to suggest that the innocent are suffering as a result of an invasion that did not have to happen and that was supported by the same Christian leaders who are now calling for sanctions on Iran?
And then there is the hypocrisy issue. I would suspect that all of the signatories of the letter are supporters of the right to life movement. Some may even have participated in the annual March for Life which draws hundreds of thousands to Washington every January 22nd. If life is sacred, a view that I share, surely the lives of Iranian children who would die if the United States or Israel attacks their country are just as precious as the unborn. Christian leaders should be working hard to preserve lives, not to destroy them and their values should be consistent with Christian teaching, not with a political agenda focused on a country that they have effectively demonized. As Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) stated in 2003, "There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact 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.’" I challenge Pat Robertson, Richard Land, and John Hagee to identify for me a part of the New Testament that justifies in any way punishing people because of what they might do. Or that approves of preemptive war. If Christ were to return to the earth today one might reasonably ask whether he would recognize those who preach in his name who have apparently abandoned the historic and deeply held Christian traditions of peace and reconciliation and instead are advocating a course that could well lead to war.