Iranian officials periodically cite a purported fatwa (religious ruling) by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam, although the notion is viewed with skepticism by some critics, Muslims among them.
The fatwa was supposedly issued in 2005, but since then the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has in a number of reports pointed to evidence that Iran has carried out activities relevant to a nuclear weapons program. Iran insists its programs are for purely peaceful purposes.
A new report by “The Iran Project,” a non-governmental entity dedicated to improving the relationship between the U.S. and Iranian governments, argues that sanctions and military pressure should be balanced with renewed engagement with Tehran.
Noting that Khamenei believes the U.S. seeks regime change in Iran, it says the administration should take steps to demonstrate its “willingness to work with the existing government.”
These could include putting a stop to “some covert activities” – viewed by the regime as intended to destabilize Iran – the establishment of a “hot line” or channel of communication enabling both sides to clarify any actions or statements deemed antagonistic, and “a presidential acknowledgment and welcoming of the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against producing or using nuclear weapons, as one of the bases for nuclear negotiations.”
It notes that, according to Iran, the fatwa “should be taken as an assurance that Iran has no intention of building such a weapon.”
“Our emphasis on using the fatwa as a building block for negotiations is extremely important since for so long we have distrusted their intension of making a nuclear weapon (similar to the Iranian distrust of the United States seeking regime change),” the report says.
“Perhaps reinforcing this fatwa could help dismantle some of this mistrust.”
Among the more than 30 report signatories are former ambassadors Thomas Pickering, Ryan Crocker, Frank Wisner and William Luers, former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations Leslie Gelb, former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.
Using the Turkish government as an intermediary, the Iranians have passed on messages to the U.S. in the past regarding both the fatwa and a February 2012 comment by Khamenei to the effect that Iran “considers possession of nuclear weapons a sin ... and believes that holding such weapons is useless, harmful and dangerous.”
During a visit to Istanbul a year ago, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Turkish leaders – who had returned recently from Iran – had relayed to her “that the supreme leader viewed weapons of mass destruction as religiously prohibited, against Islam.” Clinton called it potentially a “good starting point” ahead of looming multilateral talks with the Iranians.
Clinton also raised the fatwa issue at an April 2012 NATO conference in Norfolk, Va., saying she had discussed the matter “with a number of experts and religious scholars.”
“And if it is indeed a statement of principle, of values, then it is a starting point for being operationalized, which means that it serves as the entry-way into a negotiation as to how you demonstrate that it is indeed a sincere, authentic statement of conviction,” she said.
Obama himself reportedly invoked the nuclear fatwa in a verbal message to the supreme leader, sent via Turkish officials last May according to the Washington Post.
‘Cunning and deceit’
In a September 2005 letter to the IAEA, the Iranian government stated: “The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei has issued the Fatwa that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these
The actual text of the fatwa is not readily available, despite the importance Iranian officials sometimes ascribe to it. It does not appear on a list of fatwas on Khamenei’s comprehensive website and does not come up in a search of the Iranian foreign ministry site.
Some experts have advised caution about the ruling.
Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran specialist doing Ph.D. research at King’s College, London, wrote in a recent article that “the fatwa seems to have been created to convince a western audience of Iran’s peaceful intentions, rather than a domestic one. This is why the fatwa is hyped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former officials in the west, while it has remained virtually absent in domestic debates in Iran.”
A leading Sunni pundit, Tariq Alhomayed, wrote in a newspaper column last spring that trusting Iran’s word on the basis of a religious ruling was “truly absurd.”
“Tehran has a history of failing to comply by its pledges and agreements,” said Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the London-based, Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
He said Clinton had evidently not heard about the Shi’ite practice of taqqiyah, which is defined in one Islamic encyclopedia as “concealing or disguising one’s beliefs, convictions, ideas, feelings, opinions, and/or strategies at a time of eminent danger, whether now or later in time, to save oneself from physical and/or mental injury.”
“The problem with the Obama administration is that it wants to pursue policies that may be acceptable to the day-dreaming cultural elite, but not to regimes that are full of cunning and deceit, like the Iranian regime …” Alhomayed said.
“Iran is a typical example of a regime using Islam as a spiritual pretext to legitimate its worldly actions,” Turkish international relations professor Ihsan Dagi wrote in an April 2012 newspaper column. “I am sure if they develop a nuclear weapon and test it, Khamenei will quickly claim religious grounds for this.”
Pakistan – also officially an Islamic republic, albeit one with a Sunni majority – has developed and tested nuclear weapons and maintains a nuclear arsenal. A former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is credited with coining the term “Islamic bomb” during the 1970s, when Pakistan was working on developing its nuclear capability.