Iranian officials periodically cite a supposed fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam.
In the space of a week, Obama referred publicly to it on two occasions.
“The supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons,” he said during his address at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 24.
“Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons,” Obama told reporters after the phone call three days later, described as the first direct communication between sitting U.S. and Iranian presidents since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
As the international community has tracked Iran’s steady progress in developing technologies used to manufacture nuclear weapons, some critics have called into question the religious or ideological significance of such a ruling – or whether it even exists. Iranian officials in referring to it have given at least three different years of issue – 2004, 2005 and 2012.
“While Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa has been the stuff of diplomatic gossip for years, no one citing it has ever actually seen it,” commented American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin. “Khamenei lists all of his fatwas on his webpage, but the nuclear fatwa isn’t among them.”
“Such a fatwa was never issued by Supreme Leader Khamenei and does not exist,” the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) said on Sunday. “Neither the Iranian regime nor anybody else can present it.”
“The Iranian regime apparently believes that its frequent repetition of the ‘fatwa’ lie will make it accepted as truth,” said MEMRI, a 15 year-old organization that compiles and translates news reports, statements and documents from Arabic, Farsi and South Asian languages.
According to MEMRI, an Iranian website close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps published a list last July of 493 fatwas from Khamenei, some dating back to 2004, but the nuclear one was conspicuously absent.
The website of the permanent mission to the U.N. in New York does carry a link to a page where the wording of what it calls a fatwa, dated February 19, 2012, appears. It reads:
“The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons, because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”
If this is the definitive fatwa – it reads more like a statement, with no references to the Qur’an or Hadith – it’s not clear why Iranian officials have at other times said it was issued in 2004 or 2005.
Before his election Rouhani told PBS Frontline last May that the fatwa was issued in November 2004.
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 Weapons.”
In June 2006, AFP quoted Khamenei as saying in a speech, “Using nuclear weapons is against Islamic rules.” (Religious and political leaders in Pakistan, also an Islamic republic, appeared comfortable reconciling Islam with their country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was prime minister at the time Pakistan was developing its weapons program in the 1970s, is credited with coining the term “Islamic bomb.”)
Queries sent this week to the supreme leader’s office, the presidency, the foreign ministry, and the permanent missions to the U.N. in Vienna and New York, brought not response by press time. In each case the office was asked to provide a copy of, or Internet link to, the original fatwa, with its date of issue.
‘A building block for negotiations’
Obama’s comments on the fatwa came about five months after a group of former senior U.S. government figures urged the president in a report to acknowledge and welcome the fatwa “as one of the bases for nuclear negotiations,”
“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),” said the report by The Iran Project, a group dedicated to improving the relationship between the U.S. and Iranian governments.
Signatories included former ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Ryan Crocker, former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden and former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In April 2012, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a visit to Tehran raised the fatwa issue with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton told reporters in Istanbul that she was “very interested” to hear that the Turks had been told “that the supreme leader viewed weapons of mass destruction as religiously prohibited, against Islam.”
“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,” Clinton added.
Two days later Clinton again mentioned the fatwa, saying she had discussed it with “a number of experts and religious scholars.”
Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the London-based, Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat, in a column at the time said trusting Tehran on the basis of a religious ruling was “truly absurd.”
“Tehran has a history of failing to comply by its pledges and agreements,” he wrote, adding that Clinton had evidently not heard about the Shi’ite practice of taqqiyah. An Islamic encyclopedia defines it 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.”
Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran specialist doing Ph.D. research at King’s College, London, wrote early this year that “the fatwa seems to have been created to convince a western audience of Iran’s peaceful intentions, rather than a domestic one.”
“The Iranian campaign for the international community to take the fatwa seriously is based on the Islamic Republic’s ideology and strategy,” she argued. “The fatwa is a way of defying the international community and undermining its will.”