The Gulf Cultural Club
Assessing Western and Christian Stands on the Islamic Republic
There are essentially three approaches being taken by the West toward Iran’s nuclear programme at the moment: isolation, confrontation and mediation. Economic isolation through UN sanctions. Military confrontation from the US and Israel. And diplomatic mediation largely from non-aligned states. This evening I want to concentrate on the second. I want to help explain from a religious perspective why the US is heading for yet another military confrontation in the Middle East.
Economic Isolation: UN Sanctions
But first, let us observe and dismiss the first approach – namely the futility of UN sanctions. Let me quote from the Global Policy Forum:
“In 1979, at the time of the Islamic revolution and the hostage crisis, the United States imposed broad economic sanctions against Iran. Since then, Washington has imposed various additional sanctions against Tehran, accusing the Iranian government of developing nuclear weapons and sponsoring or funding terrorism abroad. The sanctions block US-based oil companies from operating in Iran, giving the US a strong incentive to generalize the sanctions and block US firms' foreign competitors from operating there as well.
In February 2003, Iran revealed its uranium enrichment program at Natanz, claiming it was using the technology for peaceful purposes and inviting the UN nuclear monitoring body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to visit. The US, however, alleged that the program is part of a drive to develop nuclear weapons and sought to refer the Iranian case to the Security Council.
In May 2006, the Security Council adopted a resolution endorsing the P5 and Germany offer of diplomatic and economic incentives and demanding that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment programs by August 31. In December 2006, after Tehran’s failure to comply, the Council imposed sanctions on Iran's trade in sensitive nuclear materials and technology. Following the IAEA’S offer to Tehran of a 60 day grace period where halting of the country’s uranium enrichment would be exchanged for suspension of UN sanctions which Iran did not take up, the Security Council passed Resolution 1747 in March 2007, intensifying the previous sanctions package. Iran has vowed to continue with its nuclear energy program, but informal talks continue.”
In December 2007 the US National Intelligence Report on Iran’s nuclear programme was declassified. The findings of the US's 16 intelligence agencies, said with quote "high confidence" that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 "in response to international pressure". Nevertheless, the US is currently seeking support for a third round of sanctions against Iran including a travel ban. The fact is sanctions are a blunt instrument as we saw in Iraq when under it was the poor, the sick and children who suffered most. Iran is very different. During a visit last November I observed how Iran is coping. Iran has simply become more self reliant and self sufficient in such things as car and truck manufacture as well as aircraft production. Iran is also now a net exporter of food such as wheat to Egypt, gas to India and oil to China. Despite sanctions, in December 2007 a ban was lifted on the export of shrimps to the EU. And on Monday of this week, the eighth and final nuclear fuel shipment from Russia for Bushehr nuclear power plant was received. Iran has received a total of 82 tons of fuel since December 2007 for the primary stage of commissioning the Bushehr nuclear power plant, along with auxiliary equipment from Russia. So much for international sanctions.
Military Confrontation: US & Israeli Aggression
The present approach of the US toward Iran is typified in the incident that occurred in the Straits of Hormuz earlier this month. The U.S. Navy reported that five Iranian speedboats had approached a U.S. convoy in the Strait of Hormuz and radioed the threat "You will explode." President Bush promptly warned that an expansionist, fundamentalist Iran was up to its old tricks and that "all options are on the table to protect our assets." For a moment, the stage was set for [yet another] confrontation. There was one problem: Pentagon officials noticed the recording was suspect and had to move quickly away from their initial claim that Iranian naval officers had issued the threat. Matthew Weaver in the Guardian notes:
“A heckling radio ham known as the Filipino Monkey, who has spent years pestering ships in the Persian Gulf, is being blamed today for sparking a major diplomatic row after American warships almost attacked Iranian patrol boats. The US navy came within seconds of firing at the Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz on January 6 after hearing threats that the boats were attacking and were about to explode.. the US navy's journal, Navy Times, has claimed that the threats, which were broadcast last week by the Pentagon, are thought to have come from an infamous radio prankster. It said the Filipino Monkey, who could be more than one person, listens to ship-to-ship radio traffic and then interrupts, usually with abusive insults. Rick Hoffman, a retired captain, told the paper: "For 25 years, there's been this mythical guy out there who, hour after hour, shouts obscenities and threats. He used to go all night long. The guy is crazy. "Could it have been a spurious transmission? Absolutely."
Samantha Power, writing in Time, observed,
”The war scare that wasn't stands as a metaphor for the incoherence of our policy toward Iran: the Bush Administration attempts to gin up international outrage by making a claim of imminent danger, only to be met with international eye rolling when the claim is disproved. Sound familiar? The speedboat episode bore an uncanny resemblance to the Administration's allegations about the advanced state of Iran's weapons program--allegations refuted in December by the National Intelligence Estimate. In the eyes of even our closest allies, the Administration's Iran policy amounts to a lurch from one imagined crisis to the next.”
When George W. Bush was visiting the Middle East this month, after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the two announced harmonious positions on Iran's nuclear programme. Yediot Aharonot, the most widely circulated Israeli newspaper, revealed that Bush agreed during his meeting with Olmert to coordinate with Israel in directing a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. All Israeli officials who met with Bush stated that he indisputably affirmed that there is no importance to a report issued recently by American domestic intelligence and stating that Iran halted development of its nuclear programme for military purposes in 2003. Saleh Al-Naami, writing in Al-Ahram notes,
“Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's deputy defence minister and officially charged with facing strategic threats, considered the content of Bush's speech given in the United Arab Emirates Sunday and directed at the Iranian people as evidence that the American administration has "completely adopted the Israeli conception" of confronting the "Iranian threat and other sources of threat in the region, led by Hizbullah and Hamas."
“On 7 January, the Israeli intellectual Gideon Levy wrote an article in Haaretz in which he stated that, "there has never been anyone in the White House who granted Israel permission to enact aggression as Bush, who encouraged Israel to wage campaigns of violence and urged it to firmly establish the reality of the occupation." Levy added that, "Bush is the president who granted legitimacy to every criminal act, from the expansion of settlements to even ignoring signed agreements, including those that Israel reached with the Palestinian Authority under the sponsorship of the United States, and who participated in firmly establishing the occupation and making it crueler."
Why? Why is there such a close intimate relationship between the US and Israel? Why has the US vetoed virtually every UN Resolution critical if Israel? Why will you not find a single serving US politician in the Senate or Congress openly critical of Israel? At the same time, why such cruel antipathy toward the Palestinians? Why such implacable hostility toward Iran? Why describe countries such as Iran, Syria, and Libya repeatedly as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’? And why therefore does so much of the world ‘hate’ America? The answers to these questions will remain inexplicable unless we factor in what is now probably the most influential and controversial movement amongst Christians today – Christian Zionism.
The Significance of Christian Zionism
Let me give you a flavour of the movement and their strategy from a recent speech given by John Hagee.
For 25 almost 26 years now, I have been pounding the evangelical community over television… If a Christian admits “I believe the Bible,” I can make him a pro-Israel supporter or they will have to denounce their faith. So I have the Christians over a barrel, you might say.
The assumption Hagee makes, that Bible-believing Christians will be pro-Israel, is the dominant view among evangelical Christians, especially in the USA. In March 2007, Hagee was a guest speaker at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference. He began with these words: “The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened.
There are 50 million Christians standing up and applauding the State of Israel…” As the Jerusalem Post pointed out, his speech did not lack clarity. He went on to warn:
It is 1938. Iran is Germany, and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler. We must stop Iran’s nuclear threat and stand boldly with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East… Think of our potential future together: 50 million evangelicals joining in common cause with 5 million Jewish people in America on behalf of Israel is a match made in heaven.
John Hagee is not an insignificant individual. He is the Founder and Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Church, an 18,000 member evangelical church in San Antonio in Texas. Hagee broadcasts a national radio and television ministry to Americans on 160 T.V. stations, 50 radio stations and eight networks into an estimated 99 million homes worldwide on a weekly basis. In 2006 he founded Christians United for Israel with the support of over 400 other Christian leaders. Dale Crowley, a Washington journalist estimates 25-30 million supporters. The Pew Research Centre recently discovered that 60% of evangelicals said they supported the state of Israel, Hagee is not alone in accessing over 99 million homes worldwide weekly.
A very rough estimate then would suggest that one in five Americans would identify themselves as a Christian Zionist. Obviously within world-wide Christianity, it represents a powerful but small minority, and it is important to note that the heads of Churches in Jerusalem and the Middle East, including Iran, have repudiated Christian Zionism as a heresy. Nevertheless, the Unity Coalition for Israel, which brings together over 200 different autonomous organizations, is the largest pro-Israel network in the world. They claim to have 40 million active members, and lobby on behalf of Israel through 1,700 religious radio stations, 245 Christian TV stations, and 120 Christian newspapers. . A powerful lobby movement? You bet. Christian Zionism is undoubtedly a dominant force shaping US foreign policy in the Middle East. Three types of Christian Zionism have emerged in the last 40 years. It is the apocalyptic and political forms that concern us the most. Let me give you a summary of their theology.
1. Ultra-Literal Biblical Hermeneutic
2. The Jews remain God’s Chosen People
3. The Jews are restored to Eretz Israel
4. Jerusalem the eternal Jewish capital
5. The Jewish Temple must be rebuilt
6. Antipathy toward Arabs and Islam
7. There will be a war of Armageddon
Since their theology is essentially apocalyptic, their political involvement is inevitably confrontational toward those who oppose Israel. So,
1. The belief that the Jews remain God’s chosen people leads Christian Zionists to a justification for Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.
2. As God’s chosen people, the final restoration of the Jews to Israel is therefore actively encouraged and facilitated through partnerships between Christian organisations and the Jewish Agency.
3. Eretz Israel, as delineated in scripture, belongs exclusively to the Jewish people, therefore the land must be annexed and the settlements adopted and strengthened.
4. Jerusalem is regarded as the eternal and exclusive capital of the Jews, and cannot be shared with the Palestinians. Therefore, strategically, Western governments are placed under pressure by Christian Zionists to relocate their embassies to Jerusalem and thereby recognise the fact.
5. The Third Temple has yet to be built, the priesthood consecrated and sacrifices reinstituted. As dispensational Christian Zionists, in particular, believe this is prophesied, they offer varying degrees of support to the Jewish Temple Mount organisations committed to achieving it.
6. Since Christian Zionists are convinced there will be an apocalyptic war between good and evil in the near future, there is no prospect for lasting peace between Jews and Arabs. Indeed, to advocate Israel compromise with Islam or coexist with Palestinians is to identify with those destined to oppose God and Israel in the imminent battle of Armageddon.
Clearly, not all Christian Zionists embrace each of these six tenets, or with the same degree of conviction or involvement. Nevertheless, as has been argued, the overall consequences of such uncritical support for the State of Israel is inherently and pathologically destructive, both to the future of Israel and the security of the United States.
So, July 2006, at the inaugural event for Christians United for Israel, after recorded greetings from George W. Bush, and in the presence of four US Senators as well as the Israeli ambassador, John Hagee could insist,
“The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God's plan for both Israel and the West... a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation and Second Coming of Christ.” 
Although it seems that last night Rudy Giuliani lost the race to become the next US President, his views demonstrate the synergy between the religious and political Right in America:
“We’ve seen what Iran will do with ordinary weapons. If I’m president of the United States, I guarantee you we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons, because they’re not going to get nuclear weapons… “Part of the premise of talking to Iran has to be that they have to know very clearly that it is unacceptable to the United States that they have nuclear power. I think it could be done with conventional weapons, but you can't rule out anything and you shouldn't take any option off the table.”1 (Oct. 16, 2007)
Sarah Posner, writing in The American Prospect warns,
“While Washington insiders wonder and worry whether President Bush really is bent on a military strike against Iran, Hagee already has spent months mobilizing the shock troops in support of another war. As diplomats, experts, and pundits debate how many years Iran will need to develop a viable nuclear weapon, Hagee says the mullahs already possess the means to destroy Israel and America. And although Bush insists that diplomatic options are still on the table, Hagee has dismissed pussyfooting diplomacy and primed his followers for a conflagration. Hagee calls pastors “the spiritual generals of America,” an appropriate phrase given his reliance on them to rally their troops behind his message.
In my introduction, I said there were essentially three approaches being taken by the West toward Iran’s nuclear programme at the moment: isolation, confrontation and mediation. I have tried to show that economic isolation through UN sanctions has not worked and will not achieve resolution. I have tried to show the misguided and destructive influence of the Christian Right in the US lobbying for military confrontation on behalf of Israel. I hope I have convinced you that there is only one way forward – and that is diplomatic mediation.
3. Diplomatic Mediation
This is how Samantha Power, writing in Time this week summarised the benefits of diplomacy:
“A new Iran policy should start with the premise that any country behind a problem can also be behind a solution. No aspect of the Iraq quagmire can be resolved without Iranian involvement. Washington has a better chance of modifying Iran's influence in Iraq—and Afghanistan, Palestinian territories and Lebanon--than of immediately halting it.
To do so, we need to broaden the range of policy tools we draw upon. That means refraining from redundant reminders that military force is still "on the table," which only strengthen the hand of hard-line Islamists and nationalists. It means broadening cultural contacts with the Iranian people, bypassing the regime through Voice of America and the Internet. And it means trying high-level political negotiations, something the Bush Administration has so far shunned. Supporters of engagement should not equate dialogue with concessions. We should ask international negotiators to insist--as we did with the Soviet Union during the cold war--that Iran address human-rights issues as well as security concerns. It's true that earlier attempts at engagement have produced few dividends. But what negotiations can do is diminish perceptions of U.S. arrogance and remind the world of the urgency of getting Iran to cooperate on issues of shared interest, from preventing state failure in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan to caring for Iraqi refugees.
Engaging Iran won't guarantee improved U.S.-Iranian relations or a more stable gulf region. But not engaging means more of the same. The longer we wait to rethink our Iran policy, the greater the likelihood that the next crisis will erupt into a full-fledged confrontation.”
I would want to add one further dimension to diplomacy and that is what the respective faith communities can bring to the table. Three weeks ago I participated in a consultation bringing together Evangelical and Muslim leaders at the invitation of the World Islamic Call Society in Tripoli. Last week I was in Beirut at the invitation of an Islamic group to talk to them about Christian Zionism. There is real potential when we are willing to address our own complicity in the conflict. Let me close with two practical steps.
We must put our own house in order first, before we try and fix other’s. Jesus said,
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3, 5).
Jesus is emphasizing that we must examine our own motives and actions before we criticise others. It is too easy and convenient for Christians to blame the Arabs or Islam for the ills of the world. This is unjust. We must be honest about our historical complicity in the conflict and commit ourselves to justice, if we are to expect others to listen to us when we talk of peace. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer said “the dividing line between good and evil does not run between races, cultures or nations but through the middle of every human heart.
Jesus is described as "The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6) and has commanded his followers to pursue a ministry of reconciliation. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) In the light of this the Bible tells us to "Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it." (1 Peter 3:11). At the end of the Book of Revelation is a beautiful image of paradise restored in which the Tree of Life bears fruit every month. We are told " And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." (Revelation 22:2). If this is God's view of the future, then we need no greater motivation to work for justice, peace and reconciliation.
We cannot afford to leave it to our politicians and militaries. The Road-map to peace needs peacemakers. Thank you.
 UN Sanctions Against Iran? Global Policy Forum http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/sanction/indxiran.htm
 Russia Completes Fuel Delivery with Eighth Batch http://www.almanar.com.lb/NewsSite/NewsDetails.aspx?id=34364&language=en
 Matthew Weaver, “Mischievous 'Filipino Monkey' could have triggered latest US-Iranrow” Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/iran/story/0,,2240533,00.html
 John Hagee, The One Jerusalem Blog, 25 January 2007. http://www.onejerusalem.org/blog/archives/2007/01/audio_exclusive_12.asp <Accessed March 2007>
 “Christians for Israel” Editorial, The Jerusalem Post, 14 March 2007. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1173879085796&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
 The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Many Americans Uneasy with Mix of Religion and Politics,” August 24, 2006. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, http://peoplepress.org/reports/display.php3?PageID=1084 <accessed March 2007>
 See Robert Jewett & John Shelton Lawrence, Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003); Timothy Weber, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals became Israel’s Best Friend (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2004); and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, ‘The Israeli Lobby’, The London Review of Books, 23 March 2006, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/mear01_.html
 Sarah Posner, “Pastor Strangelove”, The American Prospect http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=11541
 Samantha Power, “Rethinking Iran” Time, 28 January 2008, p. 27.