An Open Letter on a Looming Disaster in Iran

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Dear Orthodox Peace Fellowship members and Friends:

In recent days, there has been a proliferation of reports indicating that Israel is preparing an attack on Iran and that it may occur in late September or sometime in October. Never mind that a majority of Israelis do not favor such a step at this time. Never mind that the United States has repeatedly indicated that our intelligence does not support the same feeling of urgency that some of the Israeli leaders evince. Never mind that military experts in both Israel and the United States have cautioned against taking that plunge into such dark and murky waters. Those who are in a position to know feel that it may be likely.

Apparently calculations are being made regarding the upcoming U.S. presidential elections and the possible impact of an Israeli strike on that political equation. Just as Iran waited for Ronlald Reagan to take office to release the Tehran Embassy hostages as a way of punishing Jimmy Carter, Israel might launch a strike (so the theory goes) in expectation of greater U.S. Buy-in or actual participation if it should occur prior to the November election.  It is even reported that official estimates have been made of the projected number of Israeli dead that would result should Iran respond with missile attacks (about 500 persons), and deemed tolerable.

President Obama urges patience, but says “all options are on the table” (code for military intervention by the U.S.). The decision may not entirely rest with him, since America will almost certainly be expected to act as a guarantor of Israel’s security, no matter what happens, based on its repeated official assurances over the years.

For those of us who oppose violations of human rights whether in an Iranian court, at an Israeli road-block, or at Guantanamo, and loss of life wherever it occurs, what should we say about another war in the Middle East? How should we consider pre-emptive war—that which is not justified by  imminent danger, but by perceived potential danger? How should we react to the monstrous calculus of risk that is being done right now in U.S. and Israeli strategy meetings?

Because we are children of God before we are citizens of the United States, Canada, or any other country, we must bring the discussion back to its fundamentals: We are our brothers’ keepers—we cannot sit on the sidelines as spectators at a calamity we might help prevent.

“War,” observed General Sherman, “is Hell.” It is not for us to condemn anyone to the hell of war, despite the fear we may feel or the evil we imagine in another. As Solzhenitsyn wrote “the line between good and evil runs straight through every human heart.” War is always like a bucket filled by a fire-hose—it quickly overflows its intended container, and much is spilled that no one planned to spill. The Law of Unintended Consequences could frame a thumbnail history of the wars mankind has fought. The “good war” is like a flying elephant: something dreamt of but never seen.

America has gone to war in the Middle East repeatedly in recent years—against the Soviets in Afghanistan through our Taliban proxies, then with NATO allies against the Taliban, then against the Iraq of Saddam Hussein (whom we had earlier supported against Iran) based on false, or falsified, information. Even if the first sorties against Iranian targets are carried out only by Israeli planes, this will be a war that quickly involves the United States and its allies, and that will profoundly impact many nations of the world.

Speculation is rampant about the reaction of the Islamic Republic of Iran to an attack, ranging from covert mischief to long-range missiles, from the closing of the Strait of Hormuz to bombings in European or American cities. No one, in fact, can say what form their response might take, but we can be sure that it will not be anything any sane person would desire. It is rare for an act of aggression not to result in retaliation.

As a collection of people who dare to call ourselves Orthodox Christians, we must consider the proposed war with Iran an avoidable catastrophe. Our grounding in scripture (e.g. “turn the other cheek” and “those who live by the sword die by the sword”) and patristic wisdom (e.g. “Nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker” –St. Basil the Great) leads us to advocate non-military approaches.

At this point, who can say that every conceivable means has been tried to arrive at a peaceable solution? We are in fact far from certain that Iran is even developing a nuclear weapons capability, despite massive attempts by human intelligence and electronic surveillance designed to reach such a conclusion.

How much of our treasure has actually been spent on finding common ground? We know that the alternative will be horribly expensive in both money and lives. Are we doomed to repeat and make still worse the blunders and failed thinking that have characterized the past fifty years of Iran’s relations with the West?

We pray to God for guidance for our leaders, and implore them to consider deeply the consequences of decisions they take today and in the coming weeks and months. Those who prepare for war, usually get war; those who prepare for peace may find it.

While the current alarm may turn out to be simple posturing or even hysteria, those pushing for an attack on Iran are determined and influential and will seek new opportunities to achieve their aim. We must remain equally vigilant and active as we think, pray, and seek to promote viable avenues to peacefully avoiding this looming disaster.

We ask that you would prayerfully consider how you might help circulate this letter. We suggest posting it on your Facebook page, emailing it to friends, copying it and sharing it on Sunday with fellow parishioners, sending it to an elected representative, or mailing a summary in your own words as a letter to the editor of your local paper.

Signed by the following (alphabetical by last name):

V. Rev. John Breck, Professor emeritus, St Sergius Theological Institute, Paris

Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis

Pieter Dykhorst, Editor, In Communion

Sally Eckert, Eagle River, AK

Jim Forest, International Secretary, OPF, author/speaker

Justin Grimmond, OPF Canada Coordinator

Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green, author/speaker

Alexander Patico, North American Secretary, OPF

Eric Simpson, Medford, OR, author

Philip Tamoush, Redondo Beach, CA

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

Renee Zitzloff, Minneapolis, MN

We append the following as useful resources for the general reader:

1. A summary of just war theory (JWT): In Special Report 98: Would an Invasion of Iraq Be a “Just War”?, published in January 2003 by the United States Institute of Peace*, the director of the Religion and Peacemaking Initiative, David Smock, offered the following summary of the basic principles of “just war” doctrine:

• Legitimate Authority: Requiring that only legitimate officials may decide to resort to force is one way to protect against arbitrariness.

• Just Cause: The three standard, acceptable causes are self-defense, recovery of stolen assets, and punishment for wrong-doing.

• Peaceful Intention: The intention is to use force to achieve peace, using force to restrain and minimize force.

• Last Resort: Before turning to war, all reasonable approaches to a peaceful resolution need to be employed.

• Reasonable Hope of Success: In going to war, there must exist the reasonable expectation of successfully obtaining peace and reconciliation between the warring parties.

• Proportionality: The suffering and devastation of war must not outweigh whatever benefits may result from war.

• Discrimination or Noncombatant Immunity: The means of warfare must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants.

*The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan federal institution created by Congress to promote the prevention, management, and peaceful resolution of international conflicts.

Note: A new addition to just-war theory, promulgated by Franciscan Naval Chaplain Louis Iasiello, newly-named head of the Washington Theological Seminary, has drawn some attention. He adds jus post bellum (justice after a war) to considerations of justice of and during war.

2. An Orthodox alternative approach to JWT: It should be noted that there is a sizable and respectable thread of Christian thought which considers no war “just.” Fr. John McGuckin is professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary and professor of Byzantine History at Columbia University. An essay of his, which appeared as a chapter in The Church’s Witness to Peace, edited by Fr. K. Kyriakos, is excerpted here:

Eastern Christianity simply does not approach the issue from the perspective of “Just War,” and endorses no formal doctrine advocating the possibility of a “Just War.”…Its approach is…more complex and nuanced.

Christian reflection in the eastern Church has…been more careful than the West, to remind itself of the apocalyptic and mysterious nature of the Church’s place within history and on the world-stage, and has stubbornly clung to a less congratulatory theory of the morality of War…because it sensed that such a view was more in tune with the principles of the Gospels.

[It has been] argued that the Church progressively relaxed its earliest blanket hostility to bloodshed and the military profession in general…. And yet, no Eastern Christian attitudes to war…have ever borne much relation to classic Hellenistic and Roman war theory.

Origen [of Alexandria]…was pacifist in his attitudes to war and world powers, and was sternly against the notion of the Church advocating its transmission and spread by force of arms.

Basil of Caesarea…emerged as one of the leading theorists of the Christian move-ment…. Eventually the entire corpus of the Basilian Epistles entered the Pandects of Canon Law of the Byzantine Eastern Church, and they remain authoritative to this day.

All violence, local, individual, or nationally-sanctioned is here [in Basil] stated to be an expression of hubris that is inconsistent with the values of the Kingdom of God, and while in many circumstances that violence may be “necessary” or “unavoidable” (Basil states the only legitimate reasons as the defense of the weak and innocent) it is never “justifiable.” Even for the best motives in the world, the shedding of blood remains a defilement, such that the true Christian, afterwards, would wish to undergo the cathartic experience of temporary return to the lifestyle of penance, that is “be penitent.” Basil’s restriction of the time of penance to three years (seemingly harsh to us moderns) was actually a commonly recognized sign of merciful leniency in the ancient rule book of the early Church.

When it falls across the threshold of the Church in an unavoidable way, it sometimes becomes our duty (so the old canons say) to take up arms; though when that is the case is to be determined in trepidation by the elect who understand the value of peace and reconciliation, not in self-glorifying battle cries from the voices of the bloodthirsty and foolish. But in no case is the shedding of blood, even against a manifestly wicked foe, ever a “Just Violence.”

The eastern canons…retain that primitive force of Christian experience on that front. It may be the “Violence of the Just” but in that case the hostility will necessarily be ended with the minimal expenditure of force, and be marked in retrospect by the last act of the “violent Just” which will be repentance that finally resolves the untenable paradox. Ambivalent and “occasional” such a theory of War might be: but if it had been followed with fidelity, the Church’s hands might have been cleaner than they have been across many centuries; and it might yet do a service on the wider front in helping Western Christianity to dismantle its own “economic” structures of war theory which are so patently in need of radical re-thinking. Perhaps the place to begin…is here and now: with “Christian America” at the dawn of a new millennium, in which we seem to have learned nothing at all from generations of bitter experience of hostility: except the hubris that international conflicts can be undertaken “safely” now that other super-powers are currently out of commission…. In such a strange new millennium, perhaps the wisdom of the need to be tentative, finds a new power and authority.

3. Bibliography:  

A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, Trita Parsi, PhD (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012). Parsi heads the largest membership organization of Iranian-Americans in the United States; he is a former congressional aide.

Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling with the Ghosts of History, Hon. John Limbert (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2009. Limbert, a former Peace Corps staff person, professor and diplomat, was a Tehran Embassy hostages in 1979-80.

The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, William O. Beeman (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005). Beeman is a professor at The University of Minnesota, where he is Chair of the Department of Anthropology.

What is Iran?: A Primer on Culture, Politics and Religion, Laurie Blanton Pierce (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2009). Pierce spent two years in Iran with her husband and children, studying at an Islamic seminary; she is Mennonite.

Isfahan, a World Heritage Site, contains many of the world’s most outstanding 
examples of Islamic art and architecture. It is the crown jewel of Iranian cities and the third
largest with a population of about 2 million. It is an important center of education, 
manufacture, technology, and agricultural research.

The nuclear facility adjacent to Isfahan is a certain target with hundreds of buildings sprawled over 150 acres, making any pinpoint attack to destroy the facility impossible.

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