As today is Christmas Eve, it might be useful for those of us who call ourselves Christians to recall the teachings of Jesus Christ regarding humility, charity, tolerance, and peacemaking. The Christian message should be particularly welcome to the American people who have borne the burden of nearly continuous warfare since 2001, resulting in the deaths of more than 5,300 Americans and hundreds of thousands of foreigners at an appalling cost to the US economy. The message is particularly appropriate for Christmas 2009 because it appears that many so-called Christian leaders are urging the United States government to take steps that will inevitably lead to a new war, this time against Iran.
On December 10th a group calling itself the Christian Leaders for a Nuclear-Free Iran sent a letter to both political parties’ leaders in Congress as well as to the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Relations committee. The letter, beginning "We write today as Christian leaders," preceded a December 15th vote in the House of Representatives in which 412 house members approved the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009, with only twelve votes opposed. The sanctions proposed by the House of Representatives and endorsed by the Christian leadership have correctly been seen by many as amounting to an act of war.
The Christian Leaders’ letter was signed by many prominent evangelicals including Christians United For Israel founder John Hagee, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Chuck Colson, Gary Bauer of American Values, and Richard Land. Land, who appears to be the driving force behind the letter, is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. There are also several Catholics among the thirty-seven signatories, which is surprising as the Vatican has repeatedly expressed its repugnance towards the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. One signatory Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has an interesting moral compass. In defense of the Catholic priests who assaulted young boys he once explained "After all, most 15-year-old teenage boys wouldn’t allow themselves to be molested." He has also stated that "Hollywood likes anal sex" and that the film industry is controlled by "secular Jews who hate Christianity." Donohue’s signature might be a bizarre mea culpa for his nasty comments about Jews because it aligns him firmly with AIPAC on the issue of Iran, but it places him in strange company with Hagee, who hates Catholicism and has blamed the Catholic Church for the Holocaust.
The name of the umbrella group, "Nuclear-Free Iran," is particularly ironic as Iran is in fact nuclear-free. But Tehran is directly confronted by 200 Israeli nukes and an undisclosed number of American bombs on board ships and planes in the Persian Gulf. If the Christian leaders’ letter is to be taken at face value, Israeli and American nukes are apparently to be judged, ecclesiastically speaking, by a different standard than those Iran might acquire. The letter also ignored that Iran shares a tough neighborhood with non-threatening but also nuclear armed India and Pakistan and made some questionable claims, starting with the flat assertion that Iran, guided by "extremist leaders," has a nuclear weapons program. It then went on to state that Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, is destabilizing "democratic and Western leaning regimes throughout the Middle East," and it will "sell or give nuclear weapons to extremist groups." The letter claimed that Iran has "vowed to wipe Israel off the face of the earth" and concluded by calling for sanctions on refined petroleum products being sold to Tehran, to include not only the gasoline itself but also the ships transporting it and the banks and insurance companies enabling the transactions. It concluded "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."
I am one Christian who is saddened by the letter because it does nothing good for either the United States or the Iranian people and reflects no moral values that I can relate to. Many of the signatories also supported the US invasion of Iraq, which, inter alia, effectively destroyed the ancient Chaldean Christian community in that tormented land. The "Nuclear Free Iran" letter is also very light on facts. Iran’s government and its policies might not be to our liking, but it is not up to Washington to stage yet another disastrous intervention in a foreign land to bring about regime change. Tehran continues to be a signatory to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and abides by the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection regime. Like it or not, it has a legal right to enrich uranium for the generation of electricity. While there are legitimate concerns about some aspects of the country’s nuclear agenda, there is no conclusive evidence regarding the existence of a secret weapons program. If Iran does eventually decide to develop a weapon it will quite likely be due to the unrelenting pressure and threats emanating from the United States and Israel. And then there is the claim that a bomb in Iran’s hands would inevitably be given to a terrorist. In the real world, it is highly unlikely that any country would spend large sums of money over many years to develop a secret weapon for deterrence purposes only to turn around and give it away. Also, if the mullahs were to give a nuclear device to a terrorist who could somehow figure out how to transport it and use it, Iran would be obliterated on the following day by the US and Israel. There is no indication that the Iranian government is suicidal.
Contrary to the claim in the letter, Iran’s admittedly fundamentalist and authoritarian leadership is far from extremist in its political ambitions. The country has behaved pragmatically ever since its revolution against the Shah in 1979 and it has not attacked anyone. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been widely and often unfairly criticized in the western and Israeli media, does not have the authority to go to war, unlike our own President Barack Obama. Iran does support Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements against Israel but none of those groups can be described as international terrorists unless one fully accepts the Israeli definition of terrorist. From Tehran’s point of view, it is the United States, not Iran, that is the principal state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East through its support of Kurdish, Arab, and Baluchi separatist groups that stage attacks inside Iran.
It is also difficult to discern what the democratic governments in the Middle East that Iran is allegedly undermining might be. If the reference is to Iraq, most observers would agree that in spite of occasional friction Baghdad enjoys an excellent relationship with the Ayatollahs in Tehran, almost certainly a relationship that is closer than it has with Washington. If the reference is to Israel, Iran has no ability to influence developments in that country while the often repeated claim that Tehran would wipe Israel off the map is a deliberate fabrication. Can Iran be undermining Lebanon? It is precisely because Lebanon is a democracy that Hezbollah is so strong. It is supported by many of the Lebanese people because of its resistance to Israel, just as Hamas has been democratically elected in Gaza, an election that many in the United States also would prefer to ignore.
And then there are the sanctions themselves. The so-called Christian Leaders want to put pressure on Iran to make it behave as if punishing innocent people by denying them fuel to heat their homes is a Christian value. And there are two things that they are overlooking. First, the sanctions regime that is now being urged by Congress might have to be enforced by the US Navy to be effective which dramatically raises the likelihood that there would be an incident that could quickly lead to a shooting war, hardly a Christian outcome. Second, the sanctions themselves far exceed "pressuring the regime" to make it change its ways. Forty percent of Iran’s fuel requirements are imported, mostly from the United Arab Emirates, as the country has only limited refining capacity. If successful, sanctions on energy supplies would be devastating. Think for a moment of what would happen to the United States if 40% of its gasoline and oil were to be eliminated from the marketplace. Think what the reaction of the American public would be if the shortages were the result of the hostile action of a foreign country. If the intention of sanctions is to help the so-called "reformers" inside Iran, a claim that is made in the Christian Leaders’ letter, it would ironically have the opposite effect, empowering the hardliners. Most observers rightly note that the sanctions would at a minimum ensure that no negotiations between Iran and the west could be successful. If Iran were to react aggressively to the virtual shut down of its economy, the sanctions would quickly lead to war.
So Richard Land and his friends are on record as supporting US interventionism, opposing elections when the wrong guys win, and using force to impoverish a civilian population in a country that does not threaten the United States in any way. America’s self-described Christian Leaders have again become enablers working with a Congress and media that have become addicted to war. It might be considered churlish to suggest that the Christian mission might better consist of helping the poor and saving souls without the added burden of advising politicians. It is indeed a tragedy when folks who call themselves religious leaders give the American public the usual Hobson’s choice when it comes to dealing with Iran. It is either war or more war. Not a very reassuring message at Christmas time and not exactly the legacy of the Prince of Peace.