Moral Clarity and Iranian Nukes

Moral Clarity and Iranian Nukes
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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's address to Congress last week has accelerated the debate over U.S. relations with Iran.

The immediate issue is the prudence of a negotiated agreement on Iran's nuclear program. The broader issue is whether or not the United States should be seeking to normalize relations with Tehran in the first place.

The debate inevitably will hinge on moral judgments. Before turning to issues specific to Iran, there are some caveats.

1.  To use language developed by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, political ethics must be three-dimensional. Any serious moral evaluation must take into consideration simultaneously the intrinsic moral goodness (or badness) of the ends being sought, the means used, and the actual effects. To evaluate only the ends leads to utopianism -- the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

2.  Any moral analysis must be offered with modesty because moral analysis is inherently riddled with uncertainties. For instance: How does one know what the intentions of the acting parties are, given that multiple intentions are going to be at play in every situation and their relative importance might shift as circumstances change? How does one make a balance sheet of the outcomes of an action? The outcomes can be known only after the future has become the past and even then will be subject to great controversy (as the never-ending debate over the morality of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows). Even supposing that an accurate toting up of good and bad consequences could be achieved, there would remain the problem of weighing the good against the bad.

3.  Moral analysis of any policy must take into consideration the alternative courses of action. In order to condemn a policy, it is not enough to establish that it has morally dubious qualities. One must also establish that there exists an alternative that is less morally dubious.

The first moral consideration at hand is the presumption in Christian moral doctrine in favor of efforts to strengthen international peace and against the use of violence -- in particular, the use of military force -- except in defense of victims of violence. This is a central theme of the international relations teaching of every pope for over a century. It also is embedded in the just war tradition, which holds that war can be legitimate only when all other options have been determined to be insufficient.

Hence there would seem to be a strong prejudice in favor of diplomacy, negotiations, and negotiated agreements. That prejudice, though, is morally risky.

It is prone to treat diplomacy as an end rather than as a means. Effective diplomacy promotes peace by effectuating agreements that resolve points of dispute and thus mitigate underlying tensions and distrusts. Ineffective diplomacy, however, can have the opposite effect. It does so in two ways. One, it leads to agreements that appear to resolve points of dispute but do not because they are vague on key matters. Vague language is used in order to create the appearance of agreement and finesse a persistent disagreement. Reaching agreements has become an end rather than a means. Such diplomacy is counterproductive. When the agreement must be implemented, the underlying conflict re-emerges. Each side acts in conformity with its understanding of what the vague language means and each sees the other as violating the agreement. The result is deepened distrust and exacerbation of the conflict, the exact opposite of peacemaking. Two, diplomacy is used by one or both parties as a tactic in a sustained strategy of conflict. Resolving the underlying conflicts here is not the intention of one or both of the parties. Rather, diplomacy is used as a way to weaken the resolve of the other party or to buy time in order to strengthen oneself.

There are two problems with that argument. First, it is susceptible to cynical manipulation by opponents of any normalization of relations with Iran. The none-too-hidden agenda of some prominent polemicists, Netanyahu included, is to intensify the conflict with Iran until a decisive victory is won. Any agreement on Iran's nuclear program would work against that goal. Indeed, the better the agreement, the more dangerous it would be to their program. Second, the preceding paragraph offered a perspective on the morality of diplomacy without taking into consideration the alternatives.

One alternative would be the use of force. Any such use might be beyond moral justification. It may violate any number of the criteria in the just war framework. A full moral evaluation using the just war framework is beyond the limits of this contribution. Suffice it to say that it would fail the two most pragmatic. It would not have a reasonable chance of success in attaining its just ends. It would set back Iranian capabilities for only a year or two and it may even increase the regime's will to acquire nuclear weapons. It also would fail the test of proportionality. Even if it succeeded in delaying for much longer Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, it would substantially destabilize the region the region. Worse, it would feed the incipient clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world, which would be disastrous for all involved.

Another alternative would be enhanced sanctions. But there is little reason to believe these would work, especially if one begins with the most extreme assumptions about Iran's intentions. Further, to the extent that they work, they do so by harming the Iranian people. That is, they are acts of economic war directed against the civilian population, non-combatants, and thus morally dubious.

A final option is deterrence. Deterrence would accept the likelihood that Iran would become a nuclear weapons state. It would abandon the goal of preventing that from happening, replacing it with the goal of preventing Iran from using its nuclear arsenal. Deterrence, too, is morally problematic. It requires a willingness to use nuclear weapons in retaliation for any first use. But the moral issues of deterrence likely are small compared to the coercive options of violence through economic sanctions or violence through use of military force. Whether it is morally superior to diplomacy depends on the details of the agreement and the details about how deterrence would be carried out and thus cannot be considered here.

All of the above assumes that there is no overriding moral imperative to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. That assumption goes against the grain of much moral thinking.

Patrick Callahan is an emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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