Trump broke the Iran deal. Can the church help reduce tensions?
President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Obama administration’s “Iran deal,” on May 8. That international agreement among Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and the United States led to Iran’s abandonment of an apparent nuclear weapons development program that threatened to further destabilize the Middle East. Pope Francis and the U.S. Catholic bishops had strongly favored the agreement as a path to peace and stability in a dangerous neighborhood.
Iran has never had a nuclear bomb. It had a legal nuclear energy program, but the way in which that program had been conducted led to serious international concerns that Iran could divert fissile material to build a nuclear bomb in the future. Many developed countries have such “bomb in the basement” capacities; they do not have nuclear weapons, but they have the technical expertise to quickly build a nuclear bomb should they feel threatened.
Countries such as Japan, Canada, Australia, Germany, South Korea, Mexico and Taiwan, as well as South Africa, Brazil and Argentina (states that have given up nuclear weapons or programs) are all “latent nuclear” countries. The Iran nuclear deal was designed to shut down and inspect Iran’s “nuclear basement.” It also aimed to integrate Iran into the global economy as an incentive to remain a non-nuclear-weapons state.
Pope Francis and the U.S. Catholic bishops had strongly favored the Iran agreement as a path to peace and stability in a dangerous neighborhood.
The empirical record shows that countries with integrated economies tend not to go to war with each other, even when they have different and opposing regime types, such as China and the United States. This is why the United States insisted on European economic integration after World War II; it hoped to stave off World War III.
President Richard Nixon opened relations with Communist China; President George W. Bush granted permanent trade relations with Vietnam, a communist country where over 58,000 Americans died during the Vietnam War. For generations, international trade and economic integration as a means to stabilize relations and avoid conflict have been Republican Party axioms.
With the United States now in violation of the Iran agreement, what happens next? The deal remains in force among the other signatory states. Each will decide whether to remain economically engaged with Iran or to cut economic ties because of concerns of U.S. retaliation. Russia and China will remain in the agreement. Our European allies will face contradictory pressures.
Iran will have to decide whether to continue to restrict its nuclear energy program and allow intrusive international inspections or to follow Mr. Trump’s lead and scrap the agreement. Mr. Trump’s move aids Iranian hardliners, who have long contended that the United States could not be trusted to keep its agreements and who now appear to be proved correct in that assessment.
Mr. Trump’s move aids Iranian hardliners, who have long contended that the United States could not be trusted to keep its agreements.
The church can play a positive role to de-escalate the renewed conflict. When politics is blocked at the governmental level, civil society and religious actors can often keep dialogue going among countries. The Catholic Church has had robust diplomatic relations with Iran for almost six decades. Catholic charities operate in Iran, Vatican officials and U.S. Catholic bishops meet regularly with Iranian counterparts, and Iran has more diplomats assigned to its Holy See embassy than any other country except the Dominican Republic.
Iran sits as a stable country in the middle of a massive war zone, with wars raging in its neighbors Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Mr. Trump’s latest national security advisor, John Bolton, is an unapologetic advocate of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which had been opposed by Pope John Paul II. Mr. Bolton has long advocated a plan to take the Iraq war into Iran, bombing that country and creating regime change by force. But throwing gasoline on the fires of wars in this region is a terrible policy.
The real losers after the president’s decision yesterday are Iran’s youth, who are highly educated and capable, the very people the United States ought to be reaching out to. Iran, like most of the Middle East, Africa and other states in the developing world, is a very young country. Two-thirds of Iranians are under 35.
The real losers after the president’s decision yesterday are Iran’s youth, who are highly educated and capable, the very people the United States ought to be reaching out to.
Research shows that countries with a youth bulge, an economy dependent on natural resources like oil, a flat economic growth rate and a previous history of conflict are likely to fall into vicious cycles of violence. The conflict trap has been the fate of Iran’s neighbors Iraq and Syria. Without jobs, the young are available for recruitment by violent actors.
Iran has been producing 700,000 jobs a year, but this is not enough to keep pace with the young people in need of employment. It had been in the interest of the United States—and the rest of the world—to help Iran diversify its economy and employ those youth in order to avoid war.
Increased sanctions also increases the power of criminal organizations in Iran. As the legal economy contracts with the restoration of sanctions, the illegal economy will expand. Mr. Trump’s decision should lead to a strengthening of Iran’s shadow economy, including the heroin trade.
And U.S. workers will lose jobs. Mr. Trump banned Boeing from selling civilian airplanes to Iranian airlines, nullifying a $20 billion contract. U.S. banks and technology companies will also lose business, although they will have a few months to wrap up contracts before pulling out. The U.S. oil industry wins, as they will be shielded from competition with Iranian oil.
Mr. Trump is right to note the many disputes between Iran and the United States and to point out that the Iran agreement only deals with the “bomb in the basement” problem. For example, both Iran and the United States support violent groups in Syria and the Middle East, but they back different armed groups. Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah and armed groups that favor the Assad regime in Syria; the United States likewise spends billions to arm and aid violent actors that press for regime change in Syria.
But after nearly 40 years of frozen U.S. relations with Iran, the agreement never intended to address all disputes but sought to neutralize the most pressing (nuclear) issue first, building momentum to address other differences between the two nations.
It is not surprising that Mr. Trump broke the U.S. commitment to the Iran agreement, as he stated repeatedly that he would do so if elected president. But the United States and Iran have many common concerns, including fighting ISIS, stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, and stopping the global opioid crisis. With the U.S. government stepping away from engagement with Iran, it is now up to agents of the church and civil society to pick up the pieces.