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Conference on Christian Approaches to Defense and Disarmament


                                                                           “Allied Harmony:

The Role of Transatlantic Partnership in the New Security Environment”


Smolenice Castle, Slovakia

August 25-29, 2006



Preventive force and Iran’s nuclear program


Gerard F. Powers

Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

University of Notre Dame




Amidst the international unity on Iran’s nuclear program, evidenced by the European-led initiative and the recent UN Security Council resolution, it is important not to forget that the strategic approach underlying U.S. policy toward Iran is fundamentally at odds with that of most of its European allies and other key countries.  According to the Bush administration, “We may face no greater challenge [of nuclear proliferation] from a single country than from Iran”[1] It is a repressive (so-called “rogue”) regime with ambitious and potentially aggressive regional aspirations, it supports terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and it poses a serious risk of nuclear proliferation.  The Bush administration has argued that more robust strategies are needed to deal with countries like Iran, not excluding the use of preventive military force,[2] because traditional concepts of deterrence, traditional limits on the use of force, and traditional approaches to non-proliferation are no longer adequate.


This paper offers a moral critique of this underlying strategic approach of the United States.  I argue that the use of preventive force against Iran should be off the table, period.  U.S. arguments for preventive force fail for two reasons: First, they lack moral consistency and moral credibility, which undermines efforts to sustain international support for otherwise legitimate U.S. efforts to ensure that Iran not develop nuclear weapons.  Second, U.S. counter-proliferation strategies, which rely excessively on the threat or use of preventive force, represent a dangerous departure from existing moral norms and a threat to the international stability the United States says it seeks to ensure in preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.  Given these moral concerns about the underlying U.S. strategy, I will argue that, as difficult as it might be, the United States should be willing to complement its work with the Europeans and the UN by pursuing direct negotiations with Iran.


Iran in context of a morally coherent approach to nuclear non-proliferation


The Bush administration’s National Security Strategy is based on two sets of assumptions.  The first relates to the exceptional threat Iran poses.  According to this analysis, Iran, North Korea and the former regime in Iraq are a moral challenge because they are ruled by brutal, authoritarian and less than rational regimes that are not easily influenced, deterred or contained. An even more serious moral challenge is posed by terrorist networks prosecuting what they consider to be a holy war against Israel and the West.  These groups have demonstrated their capacity to unleash unimaginable evil, yet they are even more difficult to contain and deter than “rogue” regimes.  If a third moral challenge -- the proliferation of WMD -- were to be connected to the first two -- “rogue” regimes supporting terrorist groups -- the combination would be extremely dangerous.  The threat posed by this deadly combination is so great -- even if the chance of the threat being carried out is relatively low -- that it pushes traditional strategies and moral analyses to their limits.


The second set of assumptions relates to the role of U.S. power in dealing with these exceptional threats.  U.S. policy is influenced by what some call a “muscular unilateralism,” which is closely tied to a strong sense of U.S. exceptionalism.[3]  Muscular unilateralism, of which Iraq was the test case, assumes that the only way to deal with these and other potential threats is to ensure that the United States remains the preeminent military, political, economic, and cultural power in the world.  U.S. exceptionalism assumes that U.S. national security and the uniquely moral role the United States plays in the world require that it (and its allies) need not be constrained by the same international norms that govern other countries. The new sense of U.S. vulnerability after 9/11 has only reinforced these two tendencies in U.S. foreign policy.


U.S. exceptionalism in its approach to nuclear proliferation is evident in two ways.  First, and most important, is the selective enforcement of non-proliferation norms.  Rather than pursue policies that are consistently designed to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime, the United States presents Iran (and North Korea and Iraq under Saddam Hussein) as unique threats. While the bellicose rantings of Iran’s leaders are symptomatic of the troublesome nature of its regime, Iran does not have nuclear weapons, it does not claim to be pursuing them (though it likely wants the capacity for a possible “break out” in the future), and the non-proliferation commitments it has violated relate to issues of transparency.  Again, the United States is right to insist on appropriate safeguards to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and remains so. But it’s credibility in doing so is seriously undermined by the fact that it does not address Israel’s undeclared nuclear program, even though it is a significant factor in fueling proliferation in the region; it is on the verge of agreeing to a new arrangement with India that, in effect, will contribute to the development of India’s nuclear weapons programs; and, in the name of fighting the war on terrorism, its response to Pakistan’s role in nuclear proliferation has been relatively muted.      


Second, U.S. exceptionalism is evident in its failure to take seriously its obligations under Article VI of the NPT to pursue nuclear disarmament.  Nuclear weapons have a central, long-term role in U.S. strategic doctrine.  Not only does the United States continue to reject proposals for further cuts in its still excessive nuclear arsenal and a permanent end to research and development for new nuclear weapons, but it continues to reject legitimate demands for negative security guarantees, insisting on its right to use nuclear weapons, even against non-nuclear threats.  In short, U.S. policy toward Iran and (some) other potential nuclear powers, is to insist that they forgo that which the United States insists is essential to its own security and is willing to tolerate or tacitly support for its allies.  This double standard is not only morally incoherent, but it undermines U.S. credibility in encouraging other countries, particularly those who might be on the fence, to deal with proliferation threats by Iran and others.   


Contrast this approach with that called for by the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops.  According to the bishops, the United States and other nuclear powers have a two-fold moral responsibility to actively work to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and to pursue a clear strategy of reducing and ultimately ending their reliance on nuclear weapons.  The Bishops’ 1993 statement, The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, summarized their position:  “An active commitment by the United States to nuclear disarmament and the strengthening of collective security is the only moral basis for temporarily retaining our deterrent and our insistence that other nations forgo these weapons.”[4]


I would argue, then, that the United States rightly insists that Iran and other countries in an already volatile Middle East not pursue nuclear weapons.  But in making that case, it must not treat Iran as an isolated or unique problem.  The central issue is not Iran, but the risks nuclear proliferation, in general – and existing nuclear arsenals – pose for regional and global security. 

The United States would be more credible and probably more effective in sustaining European and international agreement on an approach to Iran if it would follow a broader non-proliferation strategy that would ban nuclear weapons throughout the Mideast, that would treat the actual nuclear proliferation of India and Pakistan as seriously as it treats the potential proliferation of Iran, and that would acknowledge the inextricable link between U.S. policy on nuclear proliferation and U.S. policy on nuclear use and nuclear disarmament.    



Iran in context of strategies that rely excessively on preventive military force


Even more important than embracing a non-proliferation strategy that is morally coherent rather than based on a double standard, the United States must abandon its muscular unilateralism, one element of which is the doctrine that threatens the preventive use of force against proliferation threats like Iran.   


While U.S. saber-rattling with respect to Iran has been muted of late, it is important to be clear about what is at stake in its stated policy that it will not refrain from using force to prevent nuclear proliferation.  One would have thought that the experience in Iraq would have killed the doctrine of preventive war, but it is still very much alive in the Bush administration’s 2006 National Security Strategy and in its rhetoric about Iran and counter-proliferation.   There are several reasons why the preventive use of force should be rejected as an option in dealing with Iran’s potential nuclear breakout.


The first problem is that preventive force is not consistent with the presumption against force.  In contemporary official Catholic teaching, the just war tradition is a restrictive set of conditions that begins with a strong presumption against the use of force.  That presumption has been buttressed in past decades by the experience of war in the 20th Century and the risk of global nuclear annihilation, on the one hand, and the demonstrated power of nonviolent action, even against dictatorial and repressive regimes, on the other.   The case for preventive force is based on a very different understanding of the just war tradition as a permissive doctrine that begins with a presumption against injustice or for a just political order.  The presumption against force is based on a sharp distinction between war and politics that preventive force doctrines blur.  


The second problem with preventive force against Iran is that it would entail a sharp and dangerous departure from existing constraints on just cause.  The trend in just war thinking has been toward a more restrictive interpretation of just cause.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects this trend in limiting just cause to cases in which “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations [is] lasting, grave and certain.” (#2309)  This formulation is currently understood to limit force to cases of defense against aggression. 


The intervention in Afghanistan could be justified as defense against aggression because of the Taliban’s close ties to the Al Qaeda network that engineered the attacks of 9/11.  Like many ethicists and some international legal opinion, the U.S. bishops acknowledged, in the case of Iraq, that anticipatory self-defense could be morally permissible, but only in the exceptional case where there is a clear and present danger, or a grave and imminent threat.  They concluded that, based on public information available at the time, those conditions did not exist at the time of the Iraq invasion.    


The Bush administration assumes that, after September 11th, just cause has to be reinterpreted and expanded to include defense against potential, not just actual or imminent, threats.  In providing a moral justification for the Bush administration’s position, George Weigel argues that “new weapons capabilities and outlaw or ‘rogue’ states require a development of the concept of ‘defense against aggression.’”  “Can we not say,” he argues, “that, in the hands of certain kinds of states, the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction constitutes an aggression – or, at the very least, an aggression-waiting-to-happen?”[5] 


Weigel’s redefinition of aggression and anticipatory use of force is problematic for a couple of reasons.  First, he makes a debatable assumption that, unlike Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China, countries like Iran cannot be deterred or contained.  Second, the crucial factor in ascertaining whether aggression has taken place is no longer a definable action, such as an armed attack, but is based on a highly subjective assessment of the nature of the regime and its intentions.  Weigel’s distinction between “stable, law-abiding states” and “rogue” regimes is not easily applied.  If North Korea, Iraq and Iran are “rogue” states, what about Pakistan, a military dictatorship with a history of support for the Taliban and terrorist groups, or South Africa under apartheid rule?  Under Weigel’s redefinition, the number of countries that would qualify as aggressors if they obtained nuclear weapons would be quite large. Third, if possession of weapons of mass destruction constitutes aggression, what about mere intent to possess?  Or should the standard be a higher one of possession, a history of use and a history of aggression?[6]  Moreover, if preventive force is partly justified as a strategy of counter-proliferation, is military intervention to prevent a regime like Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction justified even when the nation claiming the right to preempt itself relies on such weapons and threatens their preemptive use?[7]


Weigel’s highly subjective approach to aggression, which is implicit in the Bush administration’s policies, effectively erases the vital distinction between impermissible preventive and permissible anticipatory uses of force.[8]  Given the difficulties in redefining aggression without, in effect, justifying preventive war, the bishops rightly insist on maintaining the current restrictive understanding of just cause.


Third, preventive force is inconsistent with the moral certainty required to justify force.  Efforts to expand the definition of aggression are paralleled by those who consider traditional conceptions of “imminence” as a basis for anticipatory defense to be outmoded.  Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, reflecting the National Security Strategy, argues that “imminence” must be redefined.  “When were the attacks of September 11th imminent?” he asks.  “Certainly they were imminent on September 10, although we didn’t know it.... Anyone who believes that we can wait until we have certain knowledge that attacks are imminent has failed to connect the dots that led to September 11.”[9]  The 2006 National Security Strategy replicates the language of numerous public statements by President Bush and other senior officials, insisting that the right of anticipatory self-defense in the face of an imminent attack must now be understood to include the right to use preventive force in the face of not only clear and present dangers but also “emerging threats” and before “grave dangers materialize.”[10]


Wolfowitz and the Bush administration confuse distinct categories.  The attacks of 9/11 have little in common with the Iranian case.  They were an unforeseeable bolt out of the blew only in the sense of the magnitude and, perhaps, the mode of the attacks, but the attacks themselves were just the latest in a series inflicted by Al Qaeda against the United States and its interests over almost a decade.  Neither a doctrine of anticipatory defense nor a doctrine of preventive force is needed to justify police or military action against Al Qaeda; traditional notions of defense against aggression or terrorism will do. 


More important, the Bush administration’s argument fails because it lacks the necessary moral certitude.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects the wider just war tradition in holding that the damage inflicted must be “certain” before war may be justified.  Arguably, the damage inflicted could be “certain” if it is imminent, in the sense of a clear and present danger.  It is less clear how it could meet this certainty test if it is only a potential danger, such as that posed by Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons.  Potential dangers are inherently speculative.  Since they are impossible to prove or disprove, they are particularly prone to self-serving distortion or arbitrary judgments.  They easily lead to what John Courtney Murray called the “dangerous fallacy involved in [the] casting up of desperate alternatives”[11] -- ie, between preventive war and catastrophic attacks by Iran or its proxies.  The inaccurate and exaggerated claims about the gravity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction should give pause to anyone making similar claims about the potential threat Iran might pose.  Preventive war doctrines suffer from serious epistemological problems.  The momentous decision to go to war must not be based on inherently speculative judgments about potential threats which cannot be known with any degree of moral certainty.


Fourth, preventive force against Iran would undermine international peace and stability.   While the United States might apply this doctrine against only a few “rogue” states like Iran, it could set a terrible precedent, both in terms of vastly expanding the justification for war and the cases when the norm of non-intervention may be disregarded.  Where would such a doctrine lead?  What criteria would permit Pakistan to have nuclear weapons but not Iran, Israel but not Iran or Jordan?  Would the world be a safer place if India and Pakistan or Japan and North Korea embraced a doctrine of preventive force to deal with their threatening neighbors?  The doctrine might dissuade some countries from pursuing WMD, but might it not just as likely encourage others to do so?


A larger question is the relationship between preventive force, a broader vision of international peace and security, and the role and responsibility of the United States in helping to realize that vision?  The National Security Strategy has as one of its goals the maintenance of U.S. military dominance, both nuclear and conventional.  Both supporters of the doctrine of preventive force, such as John Lewis Gaddis, and critics, like Stanley Hoffmann, suggest that it requires “hegemony” (Gaddis) or “it amounts to a doctrine of global domination” (Hoffmann).[12]  As Francis Fukuyama noted in his recent critique of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, the world did not accept this “benevolent hegemony” because “it was premised on American exceptionalism, the idea that America could use its power in instances where others could not because it was more virtuous than other countries.”[13]  A foreign policy premised on seeking American hegemony, justified by a U.S. exceptionalism that in turn justifies a doctrine of preventive war is diametrically opposed to a Christian vision of cooperative security in which states are treated equally under international law, and international institutions and international norms are increasingly strengthened so as to reduce, not expand, the occasion in which nation-states resort to war.  


But would not UN or some other form of international sanction mitigate these deleterious effects on the international system by conferring greater political legitimacy on preventive force?  It is highly unlikely that the UN would approve preventive force against Iran. If it did, many of the problems already mentioned would still apply.


Fifth, preventive force is fraught with all the moral challenges associated with military intervention to change regimes and the nation building that follows.  Preventive force, to be effective in the long-term, would most likely entail the overthrow of the Iranian government, since it is the nature of the Iranian regime that makes it a potential danger, not just weapons capabilities that can be reconstituted over time.  Just as demands of unconditional surrender have generally been considered violations of right intention because they are seen as factors that prolong wars and complicate efforts to restore peace, a U.S. policy that seeks regime change in Iran complicates and delays a diplomatic solution.  Moreover, preventive wars premised on regime change are wars of occupation.  The experience of occupation and nation-building in Iraq should be sobering to anyone who might still think military intervention to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons would be a simple or successful option.  


Sixth, preventive force against Iran is not necessary.  Even if these objections to preventive force are valid, one might still insist that international realities – i.e., necessity – demand a rethinking of the just war tradition.  In other words, preventive force is the only available alternative in dealing with hard cases like Iran. There are never clear or easy answers to hard cases. Diplomatic engagement with Iran has been frustrating.  Still, continued pursuit of these efforts, together with efforts to strengthen enforcement of the NPT, and traditional approaches of containment and deterrence are more realistic alternatives than resorting to war, with all its troubling precedents and potentially negative consequences.  In fact, this is essentially the approach the Bush administration is following in response to what it acknowledges is a similar but more immediate threat from North Korea.


What is at issue here is the extent to which containment and deterrence, combined with a strengthened non-proliferation regime and counter-proliferation measures short of war, are sufficient to address the problem of “rogue” states with weapons of mass destruction and/or possible ties to terrorists.  Proponents of preventive force are convinced that these measures are insufficient to the task.  Others disagree.[14]  To the extent these measures offer a realistic response to the potential threat from Iran, preventive force would not meet the criterion of last resort.  Improved intelligence, expansion of the cooperative threat reduction program, stricter controls on export of fissile material, missiles and weapons technology, and tightening of the NPT’s provisions on enrichment for peaceful purposes are some elements of this broader non-proliferation strategy.  


Direct negotiations between the United States and Iran to complement multilateral diplomacy should also be considered.  Many experts believe the May letter from President Ahmadinejad to President Bush and other actions by Iran signal a change in Iran’s decades-long rejection of dialogue with the United States.  If the United States can offer to engage Iran in direct negotiations on Iraq, it can do the same on its nuclear policies.  But negotiations will not be effective if the Bush administration continues to be ambiguous about whether it seeks regime change or simply a change of Iranian policies.  U.S. leverage on Iran includes not only its sanctions on Iran, but also its ability to give Iran negative security guarantees that the Europeans and the UN cannot.             


In the longer term, it is important to realize that, like politics nuclear proliferation is local.  Enforcing the NPT might be less a factor in ensuring non-proliferation than addressing the multiple conflicts in the Middle East.  A comprehensive Middle East peace that ensures the legitimate security needs of Iran, Israel, and other countries in the region must be part of a long-term non-proliferation strategy.




As the lawyers would say, Iran is a hard case.  The world would be much less safe if a repressive, belligerent regime which actively supports terrorist groups were to obtain nuclear weapons.  It is a hard case made harder by 9/11, because it is more imaginable that a country like Iran, or, more likely, one of its militant proxies, might actually use nuclear weapons in an unprovoked attack – not today or next year, but perhaps in several years or several decades.   


Just as hard cases can make bad law, insofar as the exceptional case is used to establish unwise and unhelpful precedents, reliance on the Bush administration’s preventive war doctrine to justify the use of force against Iran would make for bad morality. 


The United States is in the midst of a terribly important debate about the legacy of 9/11 and Iraq. Because the unimaginable happened on 9/11, the United States has become, not surprisingly, radically risk averse in its assessment and tolerance of threats around the world.  The combination of U.S. hegemony and U.S. vulnerability could lead to one kind of legacy: a continuation of a muscular unilateralism in U.S. foreign policy which could include the preventive use of force against Iran as part of an over-reliance on short-term military solutions to deal with a troubled and threatening world.  That sort of legacy would blur fundamental distinctions between legitimate defense and aggression, would make a turbulent and unstable world even more so, would be inconsistent with the moral certainty required before force is justified, and would be seen by many as a form of neo-colonialism and an endorsement of the notion that “might makes right.”  Because such an approach is premised on a U.S. exceptionalism, which includes double standards in its approach to nuclear proliferation, it would also continue to exacerbate U.S. efforts to work effectively with Europeans and other countries in addressing the threat Iran poses to the nuclear non-proliferation regime.


A Christian vision would try to shape another sort of legacy that is more in keeping with the best of American ideals.  From a moral point of view, this legacy would have the United States take seriously threats to the common good posed by possible Iranian proliferation while maintaining strict moral restraints on the use of military force and making more serious efforts to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime and to embrace a more morally acceptable nuclear policy of its own.  



[1].         National Security Strategy of the United States, 2006, chapter V.


2.         The debate over preemption is obscured by the lack of a common terminology.  Some use “preemptive force” and “anticipatory defense” interchangeably; others use “preemptive” and “preventive” force interchangeably.  I would distinguish between three types of actions: (1) defense against an actual aggression, (2) anticipatory defense against a grave and imminent attack, and (3) preemptive or preventive defense against a potential or incipient danger.


[3].         S. Brooks & W. Wohlforth, “American Primacy in Perspective,” Foreign Affairs (July/ August 2002).

[4].         National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (Washington, D.C.: USCC Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, 1993), p. 14.


[5].            George Weigel, “The Just War Tradition and the World After September 11th,” Catholic University Law Review, Spring 2002 (51:3), p. 707.


[6].         J. Bryan Hehir, “The Moral Measurement of War: A Tradition of Change and Continuity,” Paper for the Conference “The Sacred and the Sovereign,” University of Chicago Divinity School, October 20, 2000.

[7].         Cf. John Langan, “Should We Attack Iraq,” America, September 9, 2002, p. 10.

[8].         Maryann Cusimano Love, “Real Prevention: Alternatives to Force,” America, January 20-27, 2003, p. 12.

[9].         Paul Wolfowitz, Address at International Institute for Strategic Studies, December 2, 2002, cited in Francois Heisbourg, “A Work in Progress: The Bush Doctrine and Its Consequences,” The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2003 (26:2), p. 76.  The 2002 National Security Strategy (chapter V) also called for a rethinking of the notion of “imminence”: “We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries. Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means. They know such attacks would fail. Instead, they rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning.”

[10].       “Taking action need not involve military force. Our strong preference and common practice is to address proliferation concerns through international diplomacy, in concert with key allies and regional partners. If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of preemption.”  National Security Strategy of the United States, 2006, chapter V.


[11].       John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths, pp. 266-267.

12.       Cited in Michael O. Wheeler, “Preemption and Legitimacy: American Power and the Future of World Order,” unpublished paper, May 2003.

[13]        Francis Fukuyama, “After Neoconservatism,” New York Times Magazine, February 19, 2006, at p. 66.


14.       There are fewer nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the world and fewer nations pursuing them than there were ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. Joseph Cirincione, “The Declining Ballistic Missile Threat,” Issue Brief, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 29, 2003 (VI: 7).