An Orthodox Response to a Nuclear Iran

by Alex Patico

The current administration in Washington has put Iran at the top of its foreign policy agenda. After declaring that Iran is part of an “axis of evil,” the Bush government now declares that a nuclear Iran would be the gravest conceivable threat. Reminiscent of the lead-up to the Iraq war, the current pressure being brought to bear on the UN Security Council comes despite a lack of evidence that a weaponization program exists within Iran. IAEA inspectors have found no such indications, and the CIA’s own intelligence estimates place such a possibility from two to ten years down the road.

Seymour Hersh, the journalist who broke the Abu Ghraib story, wrote more than a year ago that senior administration officials stressed to him that the next target after Iraq was Iran. His recent New Yorker article filled in the details of Pentagon planning for the use of nuclear “bunker-buster” bombs.

Other recent reports indicate that the Pentagon is doing assessments of the cultural fabric of Iran as it would relate to an armed incursion into Iranian territory, and providing hard-currency support for groups like the MKO, an opposition group in exile (still listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. Department of State).

One Congressman, Ron Paul, said recently: “The logic of this current push for war is much the same as was used in the argument for war on Iraq. As earlier with Iraq, this resolution demands that Iran perform the impossible task of proving a negative — in this case that Iran does not have plans to build a nuclear weapon.”

Can one speak of an Orthodox response to such events? Many people regard the Orthodox Church as too other-worldly to formulate a reaction to such a foreign policy crisis. But in fact, Orthodox Christianity has many times risen to just such challenges. It came into being among a people oppressed by a harsh and seemingly omnipotent imperial superpower. It attracted adherents even among those who had been the blood enemies of the Jewish apostles who spread the word. In the Church’s long history it has many times suffered and resisted oppressive governments. At every liturgy, the Church renews its appeal for peace and for the conditions of peace. The Gospel summons all followers of Christ to be peacemakers who “shall be called the sons of God.”

But how does this translate into practical policy for the present day? Certainly, not by playing the game the same way everyone else is playing it.

First, we have no fear; Jesus cast out fear and asks us to rise above it, too. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is remembered for remarking that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” while John F. Kennedy said “Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate.” But Jesus said it first: “Do not fear, for I am with you.” Policy options tend to weigh up differently if you are assured of ultimate safety and victory, though you “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Second, as Christians, we have been freed from enmity. The reality is that we are brothers even if we are as divided from each other as Cain was from his brother Abel. It is because we are brothers and sisters that Christ taught us to say the words “Our Father.” There is no other kind of warfare than fratricidal warfare. Neither is any human being or nation free from the influence of evil. The rhetoric of designating certain nations as an “evil empire” only impedes efforts to combat evil, while blinding us to our own evils. For Christians, the rhetoric of enmity goes in the trash bin. There is no “other side” — there is only humankind.

Third, Orthodox Christians embrace an approach known as “conciliarity.” Matters of Church life and teaching are decided by the whole Body of Christ, rather than by an individual or even a respected hierarchy. The principle of conciliarity is not only useful in resolving issues within the Church; it can also help us in resolving conflicts between nations. This would require is to listen with care and respect to other nations, even those whom we regard us as mortal enemies. For Orthodox Christians, isolationism is not an option. We say: “One Orthodox Christian is no Orthodox Christian,” because we are saved together, not in isolation. We grow toward God as the leaves of a tree grow toward the sun, connected and contributing to one another.

How would the conduct of foreign policy look it were not fear-driven? If we refused to regard Iranians as permanent enemies? If we made up our mind about issues concerning Iran not on our own but in consultation with the rest of the global community? Can we credibly claim that the current U.S. or British policy is based on premises such as these? Remember the words of George Washington, the first president of the United States, as he left office:

Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.

How would we approach a state like Iran that seems so different, so hostile and so resistant to dialogue? By being unafraid to dialogue directly with those who are belligerent — Libya, Serbia, North Korea, Iran, or any other state that we regard as posing a grave threat. By treating adversaries as fellow human beings who fear as we do, and who may act on those fears as long as they have them in their hearts. By treating all other nations as legitimate partners in our working out of our own salvation, because we cannot get there alone.

So long as some nations demand the right to make and potentially use nuclear weapons, it is inevitable other states will see no convincing reason why they should not have the right. Surely, as the country that introduced this technology to the world, and used it in wartime, the United States has a special responsibility to support limitation of its proliferation, but it has no special claim, over other nations, to the wisdom needed to do that. All of us are smarter than any one of us. The United States should be setting a good example by conforming to provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commit the U.S. to work toward “general disarmament”; instead, it modernizes and updates the weapons it has.

It may not be for faith-based groups to prescribe specific diplomatic initiatives, but it is incumbent upon us both as believers and as world citizens to ensure that the core principles being followed are ones that we can take pride in and support. America is diverse, but it is also faithful. Its Christians cannot fail to be peacemakers if they simply follow the Prince of Peace. Its Muslims need to take up their special role as people who can provide a bridge between antagonistic civilizations. Its Zoroastrians and Baha’is have their roots in, and a special feeling for, the land of Iran. American Jews should not fail to weigh the impact of continued enmity and violence within the Middle East on their co-religionists in Israel. America’s Buddhists and Taoists should be able to contribute, in their own way, to the search for peace and reconciliation. Its Hindus have ties to India, which has managed constructive dialogue with Iran despite their differences.

The Old Testament prophet foresees that in response to God’s rebuke, the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshare.” The New Testament makes clear that it is in each human heart that the blessings of God are won: through meekness, mourning, mercy and purity of heart.

Alex Patico was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran, a former advisor to Iranians for International Cooperation, and a co-founder of the National Iranian-American Council. He will be part of a peace delegation to Iran in early May.