That this Synod, in the light of growing international concern about possible US military action against Iran, believes that in present circumstances unilateral, pre-emptive military action by the US or any other government against Iran cannot be justified.
This motion was tabled in February when the United States appeared to be seriously considering a pre-emptive strike on suspected Iranian nuclear sites. In March the US Navy held significant military exercises in the Gulf using two aircraft carriers and their strike groups. Thankfully, the political temperature has dropped since then, but the underlying issues remain unchanged. The discussions in Baghdad on 28th May between Iranian and American diplomats were encouraging, but the only issue that was discussed was the security situation in Iraq. The Iranian nuclear programme was not on the agenda. Similarly, the discussions between Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and EU officials in Madrid on 31st May did not achieve a breakthrough and Mr Larijani reiterated his country's refusal to suspend its nuclear programme. Iran is continuing to defy UN demands to stop enriching uranium and is expanding its controversial work, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency report of 23rd May. Its deadline set for that date was ignored by the Iranian Government. It also said Tehran was blocking IAEA efforts to probe suspicious nuclear activities. At the time of writing (June 2007), tensions between the US and Iran are continuing, focussed on the arrest of Iranian Americans travelling to Iran on charges of espionage. Therefore the political tension continues, with the very real possibility that military options might be considered by the US Government for resolving the crisis. Additionally, there remains the very real risk that an incident in the region might spark a escalation with unpredictable outcomes. The recent taking hostage of Royal Navy personnel shows just how effective the Iranian Government is in creating events and manipulating the media before both its internal and external audiences to its own advantage. Therefore it might be very mistaken to assume that the issue of Iranian nuclear aspirations is now going to be readily resolved.
The United Nations, through the Security Council, has sought to address the situation. Resolution 1737 was passed on 23 December 2006 under Article 41 of the UN Charter which allows for economic sanctions but not the use of military force. It mandates all UN member states "to prevent the supply, sale or transfer... of all items, materials, equipment, goods and technology which could contribute to Iran's enrichment-related, reprocessing or heavy water-related activities or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems".
The Security Council, in resolution 1747 passed on 24th March 2007, sought to tighten the squeeze on Iran's nuclear and missile programmes by preventing dealings with the state Bank Sepah and 28 named people and organisations, many connected to the elite Revolutionary Guard. Member states have been told to report the travel of individuals connected to these programmes. Exports of arms from Iran are banned and member states are told to exercise restraint in selling major arms systems to Iran. Loans are supposed to be limited to humanitarian and development purposes.
Of course the best solution to the crisis would be for Iran to voluntarily accept the Security Council’s demands. However United Nations’ Resolution 1737 allows for economic sanctions, not the use of military force. What is most concerning is the possibility that the US Government has not learnt the lessons from the failure of the US/UK led invasion of Iraq, the appalling suffering of the Iraqi people and the consequent destabilising of the Middle East.
The acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Iranian military is a very frightening prospect, although it must be acknowledged that the Iranian Government has continuously denied that this is its intention. It would be likely to lead to a regional nuclear arms race, bearing in mind the historic tension between Shiite and Sunni communities across the region. It is also a very dangerous prospect for Israel, considering the Iranian President’s recorded desire to effectively eliminate Israel as a sovereign state, although he has since challenged the interpretation of his statement in the West. Of course, the mere possession of nuclear weapons does not necessarily imply that they will ever be used. But the Middle East is such a caldron of ethnic and religious tensions that there is cause to fear that the unthinkable might be seriously considered by some leaders challenged by complex and powerful internal and external forces beyond their control. Add to this the complicated balance of power in Iran and the unpredictability of the various factions that hold sway in that country, it is not impossible that political and religious rhetoric might rise to such a temperature that irrational decisions might be made. However, it must also be recognised that modern Iran does not have a history of foreign interventions.
If the US did engage in a pre-emptive unilateral military strike against possible nuclear installations the consequences would be considerable. There is reason to believe that:
Such a strike would be unlike the Israeli attack on the nuclear plant at Osirak in Iraq on 7th June 1981 as the Iranian sites are much more dispersed and probably better defended.
In order to be successful, the US would probably have to take out the military communications and air defence systems in Iran, which would involve considerable destruction.
It is highly likely that the Iranian Government would seek to retaliate. This would put the whole region at risk. In particular, US (and very possibly UK) forces in Iraq might have to face very significant conventional threats. Even if US and UK forces had been withdrawn or dramatically drawn down at this stage, it is still likely that Iranian actions would have a dramatic impact upon Iraq making further military developments likely.
In the lights of c, the US might believe that it was necessary to degrade Iranian conventional military capacity alongside the initial strike against possible nuclear sites. This would likely involve a prolonged air war with possible escalations which are impossible to predict.
Should such a US strike be successful, it is likely that the Iranian Government would simply increase its resolve to develop its nuclear programme, thus making the US have to consider the unpalatable prospect of attacking Iran every five to ten years.
Admittedly, all of this is conjecture, but the almost unimaginable implications for the Middle East as a whole are deeply concerning. One of the lessons that need to learnt from the Iraq war of 2003 is the necessity for thorough consideration of the long term effects of military action.
There may be an ethical case for military intervention against Iranian nuclear sites if diplomatic efforts prove to be completely unsuccessful, but such an argument can only be considered on the basis of international law and through a recognised and respected international forum such as the UN. However, from the US perspective, the UN has largely failed to deliver on the world stage and no other nation has either the capacity or the willingness to take decisive action. From the perspective of many other Governments, the former unilateral actions of the US make it very hard for them to ever consider joining future military interventions as it would only appear to their own populations as acquiescence to Washington’s expectations of global leadership – a concept which is now tarnished in the light of its recent failures and especially its loss of moral authority through the revelations that came out of Abu Ghraib. The irony is that US action against Iraq, which proved to have no nuclear capability, could be the very reason why international intervention in Iran, which might be developing nuclear weapons, proves to be impossible.
The issues which plague the Middle East are fundamentally religious in origin and content. Of course the history is complex and unravelling the pain and perceived humiliations and threats is difficult. However, Hans Küng’s famous dictum is appropriate here: "There will be no world peace until there is peace among the religions". If this is true, then it must surely follow that, not only are we to seek to build bridges of understanding between faiths in our own country, but that we must seek to use our concern for inter-faith harmony as part of our political outlook on world events. Hence, it is very appropriate that the Church of England, through its Synod, expresses its views on military action in the Middle East as the causes and effects of such action have deep religious as well as political and social implications.
There has been in recent years a concern in this country that there is a particular theological position which has had a significant influence in shaping US foreign policy; a position which is not consistent with the long-established Christian understanding of the “Just War” If this is true, then it is important that the global Christian community challenges this, just as we expect the moderate Muslim communities to challenge their more extreme members. The Church of England is morally bound to take a stand on this as to do otherwise is to keep silent when another part of the Church (even if not denominationally) is having a very significant influence in a way that many of us would perceive as being counter to the interests of world peace.
People in this country are increasingly concerned about the perceived link between religion and violence (especially when it is formulated in rather simplistic terms by some popular advocates), and many are now wondering if Christianity itself isn’t a cause for concern. Hence the Huntington “Clash of Civilisations” concept is increasingly worrying people and the influence of a particular Christian philosophy with close links to the Bush Administration is beginning to become a problem for our own witness in the UK to the essentially conciliatory and irenic nature of the Christian gospel.
The Iranian Church lives in a very fragile context. US military action would be likely to make their situation considerably worse. A clear statement of disagreement with possible US foreign policy from the Church of England might just help our Anglican brothers and sisters to be able to refute those in their country who would label them as collaborators with, what they might say, is an aggressive, crusading Christian country.
There is the wider need to discuss how the world community can think again about the ethics of interventionism. The US led invasion of Iraq has unintentionally made future interventions far less likely. Consequently there are dictators and oppressive regimes around the world who now feel free to act as they please knowing that there is very unlikely to be any sort of serious challenge to them from the US or any other multilateral grouping of nations.
This leads to the much bigger question as to how the world can revitalise its international agreements and protocols after the US and others have acted unilaterally and without clear UN support in Iraq. Currently there is little hope that international action over pandemics, people smuggling etc. and most important of all – climate change – is possible without a significant increase in multilateral and inter-governmental working. A US pre-emptive and unilateral attack on Iran is very unlikely to make any of this any easier, indeed it will make it harder than ever to achieve.