‘Truly Absurd’ to Trust Iran Based on a Religious Fatwa, Arab Pundit Says

By Patrick Goodenough | April 18, 2012 | 4:59 AM EDT

A missile is displayed during a military parade commemorating National Army Day in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini outside Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, April 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration may view Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s purported fatwa against nuclear weapons as a potential “starting-point” in negotiating an end to the dispute, but a leading Arab commentator says trusting Tehran on the basis of a religious ruling is “truly absurd.”

Iran’s behavior should be viewed in the light of its deeds, not religious declarations, Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the London-based, Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat, wrote in a column this week.

“If religion truly were the guarantor of Iran’s behavior, why did Tehran sponsor the [Hezbollah] terrorist Imad Mughniyah?” he asked.

“Tehran has sponsored and engaged with Sunni and Shiite terrorists alike, over the past decades, and these are the same terrorists whose hands are stained with the blood of the innocent, via terrorist suicide operations, and others,” Alhomayed continued, “so after all this, how can we trust Tehran, simply on the basis of a religious fatwa?”

As CNSNews.com reported earlier, Iranian officials have cited a supposed 2005 fatwa by Khamenei saying the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam. Last February, the supreme leader was quoted by state television as saying Iran “considers possession of nuclear weapons a sin ... and believes that holding such weapons is useless, harmful and dangerous.”

Iran's Chief Nuclear Negotiator Saeed Jalili speaks to the media after day-long talks with six world powers in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, April 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Prodded by the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Obama administration signaled this month that Khamenei’s ostensible Islamic prohibition on nuclear weapons could and should be used as a lever in talks with Iran.

During a visit to Istanbul on April 1, 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 in Istanbul.

Two days later, at a NATO conference in Norfolk, Va., Clinton again raised the fatwa issue.

“Prime Minister Erdogan and I discussed this at some length, and I’ve discussed with a number of experts and religious scholars,” she said. “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.”

On the eve of weekend talks in Istanbul, Clinton said on April 13 the Iranians were showing signs of “bringing ideas to the table.”

“They assert that their program is purely peaceful. They point to a fatwa that the supreme leader has issued against the pursuit of nuclear weapons. We want them to demonstrate clearly in the actions they propose that they have truly abandoned any nuclear weapons ambition.”

After the talks in Turkey, a European Union diplomat involved in the meetings told the Associated Press that Iranian negotiators had again raised Khamenei’s fatwa during plenary discussions.

‘Cunning and deceit’

In his Asharq Al-Awsat, column, Alhomayed warned that “Tehran has a history of failing to comply by its pledges and agreements,” saying Clinton had clearly not heard about the Shi’ite practice of taqqiyah, which he described as “the practice of precautionary dissimulation emphasized in Shiite Islam whereby adherents may conceal their religion when under threat.”

(A broader definition calls taqqiyah “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, whose primary objectives do not include development, openness, humanitarian values, the well-being of its citizens, or even religious tolerance,” Alhomayed argued.

During a discussion on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday, an Iranian-American businesswoman and Shia Muslim from Minnesota asked Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations how the U.S. could “sit down and negotiate with people who believe that, in furtherance of the faith, we can tell untruths?”

Takeyh said he preferred not to get into Shi’ite jurisprudence, but added, “In any international negotiations I will suspect that both sides are trying to maximize their advantages and any agreement would have to have some verification procedures that are exacting.”

“Adherence to an agreement is contingent on the politics of the country and the politics of the region,” he said.

At the same panel, Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former senior State Department advisor, said the fatwa was significant, which was why Turkey’s leaders had urged Clinton that Khamenei’s stance provided “political leverage” and should not be dismissed

He pointed out, however, that it was “not iron-clad.”

“Fatwas can change. If the supreme leader dies the next supreme leader is not bound by this fatwa,” Nasr said. “If there’s a major change in context he reserves the right to revisit his policy.”

‘Ease sanctions’ call

Evidently sensing an opening after the Istanbul discussions, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has called on Western governments to ease sanctions as a confidence-building step ahead of the next meeting, scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad.

Asked about this during a visit to Brazil on Monday, Clinton ruled it out.

“You’ve heard me say before I believe in action-for-action. But I think in this case, the burden of action falls on the Iranians to demonstrate their seriousness,” she said. “And we’re going to keep the sanctions in place and the pressure on Iran as they consider what they’ll bring to the table in Baghdad, and we’ll respond accordingly.”

The action-for-action concept appears to be gaining prominence in the Western approach to the Iran standoff.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led the talks in Istanbul, told reporters afterwards that “we will be guided by the principle of the step-by-step approach and reciprocity.”

Iran insists that its nuclear program, which it kept secret until regime opponents exposed details in 2002, has no military objective. Under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty all countries have the right to nuclear energy, and Ashton reaffirmed that the West accepts Iran’s right to “the peaceful use of nuclear power.”

Late last year, however, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report there was “credible” evidence that Iran carried out “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” as part of a “structured program” until the end of 2003 – and that there were indications that some of those activities had continued after 2003 and “may still be ongoing.”

“The Agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program,” it said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow