Fatwa? Iran’s Nuclear Activity Continued for Years After Ayatollah Supposedly Banned It

Patrick Goodenough | December 3, 2015 | 4:30am EST
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Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Photo: Office of the Supreme Leader)

(CNSNews.com) – Iran conducted a coordinated program aimed at developing a nuclear bomb until 2003, and carried out further weapons-related activity until at least 2009, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said in a key report to its governing board on Wednesday.

That assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicates that Iran continued to carry out some weapons development activities even after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s purported fatwa banning such activity – and, in the words of House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce, Iran “lied” about it.

The exact date of the fatwa is in dispute – some critics dispute its very existence or whether it holds much religious weight – but Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has dated it to early November 2004; Iran’s state-funded Press TV has said it was issued in August 2005; and the Iranian government referred to the existence of the fatwa in a September 2005 letter to the IAEA.

Yet according to the IAEA, some weapons-related activity continued for years after a coordinated program was stopped in 2003 – and therefore for years after Khamenei supposedly issued a religious decree declaring that the production, stockpiling, or use of nuclear weapons was forbidden under Islam, and that Iran would never acquire or use them.


President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have cited the fatwa favorably on several occasions in the context of negotiations that delivered the controversial nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last summer.

“The Agency’s overall assessment is that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003,” the IAEA report stated.

Specifically, it said activities that took place after 2003 included “computer modelling of a nuclear explosive device” – work which the IAEA assessed Iran continued to carry out between 2005 and 2009.

In the period since 2009, the IAEA said, it found “no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

Overall, the IAEA said the Iranian activities “did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.”

They did, however, include work in 2002-2003 looking into ways to ensure that a spherical payload in a Shahab-3 missile “would remain safe until the re-entry vehicle reached its designated target, and that the payload would then function correctly.”

(The Shahab-3, first test-fired in 1998, has a range of around 800 miles, potentially threatening Israel as well as U.S. allies and forces in the Gulf. The fusion device in a nuclear warhead is typically spherical in shape.)

Iran ‘shall cooperate fully’

The IAEA’s production of the report on the “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear program is a key step towards implementation of the JCPOA, including the lifting of sanctions on Tehran.

Due by a Dec. 15 deadline, the report’s compilation was based on a confidential, Iran-IAEA “separate arrangement” which troubled many critics in the U.S. Congress. Some were also unhappy with the fact the IAEA agreed to let Iran collect its own environmental samples – with no agency officials physically present – from a military site where some of the most serious PMD work was suspected to have been carried out.

A U.N. Security Council resolution adopted on July 20 said that Iran “shall cooperate fully as the IAEA requests, to be able to resolve all outstanding issues …”

Although overall the IAEA characterized Iran as having met its commitments to answer the agency’s questions, and to provide relevant documents and written explanations, the 16-report also indicated that in some instances Iran was not fully compliant, or did not provide the IAEA with the information it sought.

“Iran has not provided an explanation for” certain activities relating to the development of detonators which the IAEA said “have characteristics relevant to a nuclear explosive device,” the report said in one instance.

In another, it stated that “[t]he Agency asked Iran to clarify its activities relating to scientifically monitored explosive research capabilities which were the basis for certain of the Agency’s concerns … Iran did not provide any clarification.”

In yet another instance, the report said, “Iran indicated that, in view of the strong conventional military dimensions associated with this work [modelling studies on high explosives], it was not in a position to discuss them.”

‘Obfuscation and stonewalling’

Despite those areas of lack of cooperation the report – entitled “final assessment on past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program” – is expected to be approved in a resolution which the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors will consider on Dec. 15, thus putting the PMD issue to rest.

Asked during Wednesday’s State Department briefing whether the administration believed the IAEA report “gives you what you need to submit that resolution that would close the book on PMD,” spokesman Mark Toner replied, “Correct.”

But in a brief preliminary evaluation of the IAEA report, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security cautioned against a speedy wrapping up of the matter.

“Despite obfuscation and stonewalling by Iran, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had a coordinated nuclear weapons development program until the end of 2003 and conducted some weapons development activities after 2003,” it said. “Overall, Iran provided little real cooperation.”

“Faced with such outright Iranian efforts to deceive the inspectors, the IAEA broke relatively little new ground,” said the independent institute. “The truth of Iran’s work on nuclear weapons is probably far more extensive than outlined by the IAEA in this report.”

“The IAEA drew conclusions where it was able to. The bottom line is that the IAEA’s investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programs cannot be understood to be concluded, certainly it cannot be closed,” the Institute for Science and International Security concluded.

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