(CNSNews.com) – Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s insistence that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons because Islam prohibits weapons of mass destruction appears to have convinced Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, but others remain skeptical.
Over the past seven years, Khamenei has periodically raised the “prohibited by Islam” claim, even as the international community has tracked Iran’s steady progress in developing the technologies used to manufacture nuclear weapons.
Last week he did so again during a visit to Tehran by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose comments afterwards suggested he had been won over.
“Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says openly and clearly that weapons of mass destruction are not acceptable according to fiqh and shari’a,” Erdogan said on Thursday, using the Arabic terms for Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic law. “If he says that, I cannot then claim that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Don’t they have the right to a nuclear program for peaceful purposes?”
Western governments are looking to Turkey to play a key role in persuading Iran to negotiate a resolution to the nuclear standoff, given their close bilateral ties.
Turkey plans to host talks in Istanbul this month between Iran and the “P5+1” – permanent U.N. Security Council members U.S., France, China, Britain and Russia, plus Germany.
If the meeting happens, it will be the first since January 2011, and comes amid heightened tensions over enhanced sanctions and speculation about possible Israeli air strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites.
During a visit to Istanbul on Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about Khamenei’s comments. She confirmed that Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had relayed them to her.
“I was very interested in what both the foreign minister and the prime minister told me about their visit [to Iran],” she told reporters. “They had lengthy discussions with the supreme leader, the president, and other Iranian officials. They were told … that the supreme leader viewed weapons of mass destruction as religiously prohibited, against Islam.”
If that Iranian statement “provides the context in which the [P5+1] discussions occur, that would be a good starting point,” she added.
“If the Iranians are truly committed to that statement of belief as conveyed to the prime minister and the foreign minister, then they should be open to reassuring the international community that it’s not an abstract belief but it is a government policy.”
Bahman Diba, a Virginia-based Iranian author and consultant who worked in the Iranian foreign ministry for 14 years, calls Khamenei’s claims “baseless and little more than an attempt at deception.”
He told CNSNews.com Monday that if – as Iran claims – Khamenei has issued a fatwa (religious ruling) declaring nuclear weapons to be forbidden, “no one has ever seen it.”
Diba questioned the religious basis for such a fatwa, since if nuclear weapons were used to kill opponents of the regime or opponents of Islam, then – from the regime’s perspective – “what is wrong with that?”
And he questioned the value of any such fatwa “for those who do not believe in Islam or the leadership of the regime in Iran.”
Writing this week in Turkey’s Today’s Zaman newspaper, international relations professor Ihsan Dagi expressed reservations about Khamenei’s claims.
“Iran is a typical example of a regime using Islam as a spiritual pretext to legitimate its worldly actions,” he said. “I am sure if they develop a nuclear weapon and test it, Khamenei will quickly claim religious grounds for this.”
In 2010 the Associated Press obtained a copy of a 2005 book by an influential Shi’ite figure, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who made a case for Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
“Under Islamic teachings, all common tools and materialistic instruments must be employed against the enemy and prevent enemy’s military superiority,” he was quoted as writing.
“From Islam's point of view, Muslims must make efforts to benefit from the most sophisticated military equipment and get specific weapons out of the monopoly of powerful countries.”
Yazdi is no minor cleric; he headed Iran’s judiciary from 1989 to 1999 and has served on two of the Islamic republic’s top legal-religious institutions – the Council of Guardians and Assembly of Experts.
Religious and political leaders in Pakistan had no difficulty reconciling Islam with their country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. News reports from the 1970s indicate that the term “Islamic bomb” was coined by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, prime minister at the time Pakistan was developing its weapons program.
Nonetheless, after Iran’s 1979 revolution, supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that nuclear weapons research was “un-Islamic” and shut down the Bushehr light water reactor project which the Shah had launched earlier with German help.
After Khomeini’s death, however, his successor revived the project, and in 1995 Iran signed an agreement with Russia to complete the reactor.
Iranian officials frequently cite a purported 2005 fatwa by Khamenei saying the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam. (The Iranian government referred to the fatwa in a statement delivered to the International Atomic Energy Agency in August 2005, although multiple online searches do not bring up the actual text. Lists of Khamenei’s fatwas on official Web sites do not include any on nuclear weapons.)
Khamenei has made various statements on Islam and nuclear weapons, including:
Feb. 2012: He 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.”
Feb. 2010; He told Iranian military commanders that “Islam is opposed to nuclear weapons.”
Jun. 2009: He was quoted in a speech as saying that “the Iranian people and officials have repeatedly stated that the country's regime has no nuclear weapons, and the Islamic religion forbids the use of nuclear weapons.”
Jun. 2006 – “Using nuclear weapons is against Islamic rules,” AFP quoted him as saying in a speech. “We will not impose the costs of building and maintenance of nuclear weapons on our people. Our explosive source is the power of our faith.”
Over the years critics have challenged those assurances. Some question Khamenei’s religious credentials and influence, saying even if were sincere, his words ultimately hold little weight.
Others doubt his honesty, pointing to the Shia doctrine of taqiyyah, 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.”
In a 1995 book chapter on taqiyyah, Prof. Etan Kohlberg, an Israeli expert on Shia Islam, cited an unknown imam as having said, “Not everything which is known may be revealed; not everything which may be revealed may be revealed at the present time; and not everything which may be revealed at the present time has an audience to which it may be appropriately revealed.”