Iranian leaders may fawn over Pope Francis in public, but privately they see the Holy See as a useful tool for achieving their global ambitions

On Tuesday morning, a motorcade of limousines crossed St Peter’s Square. Sitting inside one of them was President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, on his way to a strictly private meeting with Pope Francis. We don’t know precisely what was said, but the Vatican announced that the two men had discussed “common spiritual values”, the recent nuclear deal and “the spread of terrorism”.

It was the first time a pope had sat down with an Iranian head of government since 1999. That is hardly surprising, given some of the activities of the Islamic Republic in the intervening years.

But did you know that Iran has more diplomats accredited to the Holy See than any other nation except the Dominican Republic? That certainly is surprising, and it raises an obvious question: why?

The Vatican’s relationship with Tehran has been healthy for years and is getting steadily warmer. The subject doesn’t get much media attention – and, even if it did, the information might not be reliable. These are two notoriously opaque centres of power.

The Holy See and Iran have had diplomatic relations since 1954. Iranian officials like to point out that this gives it an edge of 30 years over the United States, which did not establish full diplomatic relations with the Vatican until 1984, after a break of more than 100 years.

Iran is an Islamic theocracy that nurtures nuclear ambitions and sponsors terrorism. The Holy See does neither (except perhaps in the imaginations of anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists). Shouldn’t it treat Iran as a menace rather than as some sort of friend?

It’s sometimes suggested that Iran’s Shia Islam, with its hierarchical clergy, annual rituals and mystical veneration of shrines, is a sort of Muslim Catholicism. Sunni Islam, in contrast, is compared to Bible-reading fundamentalist Protestantism. Could there be some sort of doctrinal or cultural “fit” between Roman and Iranian spirituality?

If so, and it’s a big “if”, we can be pretty sure that theology plays little or no role in the current negotiations.

Two issues above all are driving this cooperation: the Syrian civil war and nuclear weapons. Rome and Tehran want to talk to each other about them, even though their points of view on both subjects couldn’t be more different.

The Church’s interest in the Syrian conflict is obvious: events in Syria have brought misery to Eastern-Rite Catholics and other Christians in the Middle East, some of whose communities are being driven to extinction.

For the mullahs, in contrast, the war threatens their regional client, Bashar al-Assad. They reckon the Vatican’s long track record of opposing US-led military interventions in the Middle East could prove useful.

As for nuclear weapons, the Vatican hates them while for Iran they could be the means of securing their hegemony in the region.

Of the two, Syria is the more pressing issue for the Church. The beheadings of Christians by ISIS, to say nothing of the religious cleansing of their ancient towns, are part of what Francis has called “a piecemeal third word war”: Catholics and Orthodox are the victims of nothing less than genocide, he insists.

The Holy See believes that Iran is one of the keys to solving the Syrian conflict. Iran is “an integral part of the dialogue and negotiation that can lead to peace” in Syria, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations, said last summer.

The desire to end the Syrian mess also explains why the Vatican’s relations with Russia have grown stronger. And this raises an intriguing question.

Iran and Russia are both anti-American, as is most of the Islamic world. Could the Holy See be attempting to create a balance of power between the West, led by the United States, and the Islamic world in which – despite the antagonism between Shia and Sunni – Iran’s influence is increasing?

Such a balance of power has one obvious advantage for the Church: if it worked, Christians in Islamic countries might enjoy greater protection from Muslim aggressors. The Vatican would be seen as a restraining hand on the United States. We know from Pope Francis’s speeches that he is extremely forthright (albeit sometimes implicitly) in his criticism of America. If his successor comes from the developing world, that sharp critique would continue – and it would play well in Islamic countries where Christians are most threatened.

Iran also has reasons for favouring the emergence of the Vatican as a power broker, though they are far more Machiavellian than the Church’s.

Tiny though it is, the Holy See is an important sovereign entity – one with immense influence and moral force within the West. While not afraid to pour scorn on American-style capitalism, the Pope can influence US public opinion: witness the crowds of non-Catholics who gathered to applaud his stance on climate change. The influence works both ways, however. Without the 70 million American Catholics, the Vatican would struggle to keep afloat financially.

Iran seems to have concluded that courting the Holy See allows it to tap into the complex and important relations between the Catholic Church and America. Moreover, this week’s Francis-Rouhani dialogue serves to soften the image of Iran in countries all over the world with significant numbers of Catholics.

Evidence that Tehran is determined to win the goodwill of the Pope is not hard to come by. Mohammed Taher Rabbani, the Iranian ambassador to the Holy See, is unstinting in his praise of Francis, “a virtuous figure … brimming with morality and modesty”.

He has praised the Pontiff’s views on economics, the wellbeing of the poor, war and international conflict.

Rabbani has even suggested that Iran resists oppressors and the powerful “just like Jesus Christ”. This comment will have disgusted Christian victims of Iranian-sponsored acts of terror. But might it have gone down well with Vatican diplomats and the Pope himself?

Until very recently, any détente between the Holy See and the mullahs would have been severely limited by the issue of nuclear weapons.

The Church has always opposed nuclear weapons, which make the mass killing of non-combatants, expressly forbidden under just-war doctrine, a virtual certainty if two nuclear powers attack one another. (The Vatican tolerated deterrence during the Cold War as a temporary transition before full disarmament.)

Iran, by contrast, has been struggling for decades to acquire its own nuclear warheads. Last year, however, it changed tactics. It agreed a deal with the Obama administration whereby it would roll back its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.

The Holy See was delighted. When the deal was announced, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s “foreign minister”, described it as a step along the path to “a world free of nuclear weapons”. We also know that American Catholic groups lobbied hard for President Obama’s initiative – with the backing of the Vatican.

Seen in this light, the Holy See is already beginning to play the role of honest broker between Islam and the West: the new balance of power mentioned above begins to look achievable.

But there is another point of view, and it’s one that Catholics should take seriously, even at the risk of appearing to reject the Holy Father’s optimism about the path to peace.

Francis is idealistic, but how seriously do the mullahs take anyone’s ideals except their own? The history of the Islamic Republic suggests that it will say anything to move towards, or conceal, its determination to become a nuclear power.

Critics say that last year’s deal merely gave Tehran breathing space while it planned new means of obtaining nuclear weapons. Using nuclear facilities and infrastructure that the agreement allows them to keep, Iran continues to enrich uranium – and now does so with extra billions in sanctions relief. Moreover, there are already signs that the regime is cheating on the terms of the agreement.

Certainly, Iran enjoys better public relations than it did a few years ago. Unlike Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his crude and theatrical predecessor, President Rouhani cultivates a friendly, polished image. He speaks calmly and evenly. Like Pope Francis, he has the touch of the grandfather about him.

But there the similarities end. Rouhani has always been a loyal servant of his Shia Islamist overseers.

In Iran, real power lies with the ayatollahs. It is thanks to them that the country bans conversion to Christianity, and it’s easy to find accounts of Tehran’s persecution of Christian believers, whom the secret police routinely arrest on bogus national security charges.

There are not many Catholics in Iran, and the regime wants to keep it that way. If the Vatican believes that the mullahs are remotely interested in protecting the Christian communities of the Middle East, then it is being naïve rather than idealistic.

Before entering the Vatican on Tuesday, Rouhani told reporters that Iran was “the safest and most stable country of the entire region”.

In some respects he was right. Iran is relatively safe for its population, so long as they behave themselves. It is stable because it is a tyranny, and an explicitly anti-Christian one at that. We must just hope that when the Holy Father met the Iranian president, he stirred his tea with a very long spoon.

Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s foreign correspondent

This article first appeared in the January 29 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here

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