The recent summit of Arab and Islamic countries in Saudi Arabia featured a lot of toughly worded condemnations of Iran, including one by President Trump. While for the time being the international agreement to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons appears to be holding up, there is no guarantee that this state of affairs will continue. And, if this deal does break down, there will be renewed calls for military action to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities.
Given Leavenworth’s very close connections to the military, in the event of a U.S.-Iranian military conflict, a lot of young men and young women with connections to our city would be in the midst of this conflict. So, I thought that my faithful readers would find it of interest to assess the morality of U.S. military action against Iran.
In Christian theology for many centuries, there has been a set of teachings on what constitutes a just war. While there is no universal agreement as to what are all of the components of this set of teachings, there are some requirements that are universally recognized for a war to be considered just.
The first of these is that the stakes of the conflict be quite grave. War is not to be resorted to for trivial reasons. In the case of the Iranian nuclear program, the argument can be made that for Iran to get nuclear weapons would be a great danger to world peace. The Middle East is a volatile region, and were Iran to get nuclear weapons, other regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt might do the same. For a number of nations in the Middle East to become nuclear powers would raise the risks of a regional nuclear war.
However, not all experts believe that if Iran gets nuclear weapons that it will have this sort of impact. The well-respected international relations scholar Ken Walz argued several years ago that if Iran were to get nuclear weapons, peace would be kept by the same principles of deterrence that have kept the peace between the U.S. and Russia.
The second requirement for a war to be considered just is that there are no peaceful alternatives. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, a worldwide regime of sanctions was successful in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. However, were this agreement to break down, there is no guarantee that most nations would agree to re-impose sanctions. Without a robust sanctions regime, Iran might well feel perfectly free to go ahead and build nuclear weapons. Should that happen, the case for a just war would be strengthened because there would no longer be a peaceful way to stop Iran from getting the bomb.
The third requirement for a just war is that civilian casualties not be excessive. On this point there is no real agreement as to the costs of a war with Iran. Iran might very well consider a U.S. attack on its nuclear facilities as a Pearl Harbor, and respond by launching military and terrorist attacks on U.S. targets all over the globe. Also, if the U.S. and some of its allies were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, it must be remembered that these facilities are dispersed all over Iran, and there would have to be a number of attacks. Destroying facilities with radioactive materials inside runs a very high risk of killing large numbers of civilians in a series of Chernobyl-style disasters. War is an unpredictable undertaking. As we observe the 100th anniversary of World War I, it is important to remember that when the war started in the summer of 1914, the saying in Europe was that the troops would be “home before the leaves fall.”
On balance, there is no clear-cut answer as to whether a war with Iran would be morally justifiable. This fact means that the nations that negotiated the peace agreement with Iran must do all they can to make sure that this agreement holds up because war is a most unattractive option to settling the issue of the Iranian nuclear program.
Ernest Evans is a Leavenworth Times columnist.