Choose just peace framework to respond to conflict with Iran

The following essay, written by Eli McCarthy, was published in The Hill, a newspaper focused on the U.S. Congress. McCarthy, a professor at Georgetown University in Justice and Peace Studies as well as the director of Justice and Peace for CMSM, which serves the U.S. leadership of Catholic men’s religious institutes, serves on the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative steering committee and coordinates the Washington, D.C. Peace Team.

As key leaders in the United States government escalate another conflict with threats of violence, we must find a creative way to avoid another war and transform the conflict into an opportunity for mutual growth.

How can we do this? We can shift our approach and reasoning to a just peace framework. This offers more creative possibilities and potential for sustainable peace.

Rather than reacting to the latest perceived threat by trying to one-up the adversary for the sake of “deterrence” or by trying to find a “just cause” for war, a just peace approach begins with clearly and honestly naming the root causes as well as the genuine needs.

Some of the key root causes are the quest to control key economic resources, particularly oil; conflict about the role and activity of Israel in the region; Iranian competition with Saudi Arabia and U.S. enabling of Saudi; the quest for influence in the region, such as Yemen and Syria; as well as the lingering yet concrete distrust and bitterness from previous interventions in and proxy wars with Iran. In addition, a key cause is the distrust created by the more recent decision of the U.S. to pull out of the previously negotiated coalition agreement regarding nuclear weapons and economic sanctions.

Seeing the root causes can help us better acknowledge the actual, genuine needs of each stakeholder. In this case, a needs-based analysis might sense some of Iran’s needs for respect, safety, trust, adequate economic resources and accountability of U.S. and Iran actions. Whereas, some of the needs of the U.S. might be for safety of Israel, respect and accountability of Iran and U.S. actions.

With this brief but vital analysis of root causes and needs, we can explore more effective strategic responses with the three categories and subsequent norms of a just peace approach. The categories include develop virtues and skills to engage conflict constructively, break cycles of violence or destructive conflict and build sustainable peace. Each category offers a set of norms that our actions should enhance or at least not obstruct.

Category one includes norms of participatory processes; key virtues (ex. compassion, empathy, hospitality, nonviolence); training in key skills (ex. conflict, racial, needs and gender analysis); nonviolent communities, institutions and cultures; and sustaining spiritual disciplines (ex. meditation, discernment). Category two includes re-humanization, reflexivity (keep means consistent with ends), conflict transformation, acknowledge responsibility for harm, nonviolent direct action and integral disarmament. Category three includes human dignity and rights; robust civil society and just governance; economic, racial and gender justice; relationally and reconciliation; and ecological sustainability.

For this conflict a just peace approach might suggest the following strategic actions as initial steps in a longer, revisable process.


This entails refraining from language such as calling Iran or Iranian leaders “evil,” “terrorists” or other de-humanizing images. This norm challenges the U.S. to acknowledge our common humanity with Iranians and genuine needs of all stakeholders.

Acknowledge responsibility for harm

The U.S. should reflect and publicly acknowledge the role we have played in causing arm to Iran. This would include the 1953 coup in Iran, the 1980s Iraq-Iran war, most of the economic sanctions, the ways our support for Israel and Saudi Arabia has at times been harmful, etc. Likewise, Iran should acknowledge responsibility for their harm, such as in Syria, Yemen, and with respect to Israel, etc. We could explore setting up processes for accountability through restorative justice mechanisms. These could be facilitated through a non-partisan, civil society (ex. Sant’ Egidio, Religions for Peace) or third country (ex. Japan, Swiss) led restorative process, or a UN hybrid court.

Conflict transformation

This would include the U.S. identifying the specific human needs Iran and the U.S. are trying to satisfy as mentioned above. It also entails the U.S. taking independent initiatives to build trust by trying to meet the actual needs, and to re-engage in constructive, ongoing dialogue and diplomacy.


The means are the seeds to the ends. We must use means consistent with the ends of partnership, well-being and a more sustainable peace. Thus, our means must be creatively nonviolent if we hope to actually cultivate these ends, otherwise we perpetuate cycles of harm and violence.

Integral disarmament

The U.S. should defuse our bitterness and hatred toward Iran, refrain from threatening violence or war, and instead gradually diminish military presence in the region.

Economic justice

This would lead the U.S. to pull back economic sanctions and enable fair, mutually beneficial trade, with a particular focus on those most marginalized and in need. Too many Iranians are facing delays in life-saving drugs, rising unemployment and diminished spending power.

Nonviolent direct action

If conditions for fruitful dialogue become untenable, this norm orients the U.S. to rely on creative nonviolent resistance in collaboration with other actors and Iranian civil society leaders to shift power and create better conditions for dialogue. We know from recent research that this type of resistance is at least ten times more likely to lead to sustainable peace.

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