The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran continues to advance its nuclear program. It has built hundreds of new centrifuges in a deep underground facility to increase its ability to produce low-enriched uranium. Iran claims the program is for peaceful purposes like producing medical isotopes. Others suspect that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon. U.S. intelligence, at present, does not believe Iran has made this decision.
The Obama administration insists “there is time and space” for continued diplomatic efforts, which have included multilateral negotiations with the P5+1 coalition (the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany) and economic sanctions. Meanwhile, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, has encouraged the United States and other major powers to “declare today that the talks have failed.” There is speculation that Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear sites before the U.S. election.
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, “If you think war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would be catastrophic,” and it would only set back Iran’s nuclear program by two or three years. Striking nuclear sites also risks ecological devastation and human exposure to nuclear radiation. Meir Dagan, a former Israeli intelligence chief, has warned, “A bombing would be considered an act of war, and there would be an unpredictable counterattack against us.” An aggressive Iranian response could result in the loss of thousands of lives and the spread of terrorism, especially against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Obama administration should not participate, directly or indirectly, in an Israeli military strike against Iran and should strongly caution the Israeli government against such an act. So far, diplomatic efforts have failed to persuade Tehran to become more cooperative. As more people “fear the worst”—a nuclear-armed Iran—and begin to accept war as inevitable, the present moment urgently demands re-evaluating the standoff from a fresh perspective.
What might create a new opportunity for successful diplomacy? During the cold war, national episcopal conferences took up the question of nuclear deterrence, and in 1982 Blessed John Paul II clarified that nuclear deterrence may be morally acceptable only “as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.” Thirty years later, nuclear weapons are a permanent fixture in national security strategies; deterrence has become institutionalized. In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI called this situation “baneful” and “completely fallacious.”
In a message addressed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in 2010, the pope advocated “the creation of zones free of nuclear weapons, with a view to their complete elimination from the planet.” Archbishop Celestino Migliore, former permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, specifically called for such a zone in the Middle East.
In this spirit, the international community should press Israel to end its longstanding policy of “deliberate ambiguity” and to bring its nuclear weapon capacity—believed to consist of between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads—into public light. Israel should sign the treaty, open its nuclear facilities to I.A.E.A. inspections and safeguards and commit itself to “effective measures” toward a “general and complete [nuclear] disarmament under strict and effective international control,” as the treaty requires. This is consistent with the U.S. goal of “universal adherence” to the treaty, and it represents a critical step toward creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, an objective supported by 64 percent of Israeli Jews, according to a survey in November 2011 by the Dahaf Polling Institute in Israel.
It is likewise time for the nuclear-armed states that are signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to ask some critical questions about their own nuclear weapon policies and participation in international agreements. It is disingenuous for the Obama administration to demand transparency and cooperation from Iran while the United States continues to invest more than $30 billion annually into maintaining and modernizing its 1,737 deployed nuclear weapons. Like Iran, the United States has commitments under the N.P.T. Nuclear-weapon states are obliged to progress toward a “general and complete [nuclear] disarmament.” The aim of the treaty is to create a world free of nuclear weapons, a task unequivocally supported by Catholic social teaching.
Only when the United States and Israel take concrete and effective steps toward nuclear disarmament will they possess the requisite moral authority to challenge Iran (and other nations) to abide by their international agreements. This is absolutely necessary if there is ever to be a genuine and lasting peace.