Editorial: Is war inevitable?

Before a two-hour White House meeting this month with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama again held out the possibility of using military force against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. 

“I reserve all options and my policy here is not going to be one of containment; my policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and ... when I say all options are on the table, I mean it,” Obama said. Standing at his side, Netanyahu thanked the president for his “strong speech.” He underscored the closeness of the United States and Israel, and said if Iran considered America “the Great Satan,” “we’re the little Satan.” “We are you and you are us. We’re together.” 

Though Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said March 5 that his organization “continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions.” 

To his credit, President Obama warns that “loose talk of war” with Iran risks benefitting only big oil companies and Iran itself because of spiraling gas prices, and emphasizes that the United States prefers a course of diplomacy and economic sanctions. The election year atmosphere, however, has heightened American bravado, with most of Obama’s Republican challengers deriding as excessively weak his handling of Iran (though it is unclear how different some of their approaches would be). 

The irony is that any eventual peaceful resolution of the West’s standoff with Iran may owe much less to chest-thumping and bellicose rhetoric on this side of the Atlantic than to the quiet exertions of what may be the world’s most experienced and unassuming diplomatic service — the Vatican’s. 

Thanks to the Wikileaks diplomatic cables scandal, we now know that the Vatican played a key role in the 2007 release of 15 British sailors who had been captured by the Iranian navy in disputed waters. The clincher reportedly was a private letter by Pope Benedict XVI to Iran’s leadership asking for the release as a “goodwill gesture before Easter.” The Vatican also intervened behind the scenes in the case of an Iranian woman who in 2006 was condemned to death by stoning, but whose sentence was suspended last year. 

Unlike the United States, the Holy See has diplomatic relations with Iran, for nearly six decades. Iran appears to take the relationship very seriously, in part because it sees Pope Benedict and the Vatican as uniquely placed to mediate should tensions with the West escalate. In fact, Iran has the highest number of diplomats accredited to the Holy See of any country, with the exception of the Dominican Republic. 

In 2008, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Vatican a “positive force for justice and peace” in the world. Two years later, he wrote to the pope to support closer interreligious cooperation against “secularism, Western extremist humanism and man’s growing tendency toward material life.” In reply, Pope Benedict underscored the importance of making promotion of human dignity the primary inspiration of political and social life. 

As tensions over Iran increase today, and the United States works with its allies to prevent conflict, Catholics and all believers also would do well to recall the pope’s words: 

“Peace is, above all, a gift from God, which is sought in prayer,” he wrote, “but it is also the result of the efforts of people of good will. In this perspective, believers of every religion have a special responsibility and can play a decisive role.”

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.