Obama and Kerry Say Iran Issued Fatwa Against Nukes, But It’s Not Listed With the Others

Patrick Goodenough | April 4, 2014 | 4:27am EDT
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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a message for the Iranian New Year, or Nowruz on March 20, 2014.  (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – A State Department spokeswoman expressed surprise Thursday to hear that a purported “fatwa” by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prohibiting nuclear weapons, which President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry periodically cite, does not appear on a list of fatwas on Khamenei’s official website.

“Oh, really?” Marie Harf said during a press briefing after a reporter brought this to her attention.

“I will say, just in general, I’m not an expert on the fatwa process certainly, or on the supreme leader’s website,” she said. “But what I will say, and I think what people have said, is we have referenced the fatwa. We’ve said it’s clearly significant, both to the supreme leader and to the people of Iran. And that’s important.”

Harf said she would raise questions on the issue with “our fatwa expert here.”

Some skeptics have questioned whether the fatwa, or religious ruling, actually exists – or if it does, whether it holds any weight.

In his address at the U.N. General Assembly last September, Obama said “the supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons,” and in his annual message marking Nowruz, the Persian new year, last month, the president said, “Iran’s highest officials, including Supreme Leader Khamenei, have said that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.”

Kerry, in a Nowruz interview with the Voice of America’s Persian service, was asked what importance he attributed to the fatwa.

“Well, I have great respect for a fatwa,” he replied. “A fatwa is a very highly regarded message of religious importance. And when any fatwa is issued, I think people take it seriously, and so do we, even though it’s not our practice. But we have great respect for what it means.”

Kerry described the ruling as “a good starting place.”

“President Obama and I both are extremely welcoming and grateful for the fact that the supreme leader has issued a fatwa declaring that,” he said. “That’s an important statement. But now we need to take that and put it into a sort of understandable legal structure, if you will, that goes beyond an article of faith within a religious belief, or process, into a more secular process that everybody can attach a meaning to.”

Does it exist? What’s it worth?

Fatwas listed on Khamenei’s website cover a wide range of topics, covering everything from artificial insemination to the fact that wearing a gold ring while praying invalidates the prayer. CNSNews.com reported two years ago that the purported prohibition of nuclear weapons does not appear, and a search Thursday confirmed that remains the case.

Its absence from the site is one reason for the skepticism voiced about the fatwa. Another is the fact that there does not appear to be a single, definitive copy of it, and when Iranian officials have referred to it, they give different dates for its promulgation.

Shortly before his election President Hasan Rouhani said last May the fatwa was declared in November 2004. But according to Iran’s mission to the United Nations it is dated February 2012. Iran’s state-funded Press TV said in a column last year it was issued in August 2005.

Last November, Iran’s mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna provided CNSNews.com with a copy of what it said was the document in question. A mission spokesman said it was “a religious verdict by a religious leader which must be followed by all his followers.”

That document carried yet another date – April, 17, 2010 – and was a transcript of a speech Khamenei gave to an conference on nuclear disarmament in Tehran.

After defending Iran’s “natural and valuable right” to have a nuclear energy program and describing the U.S. as “the only nuclear criminal in the world” – referencing Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the speech ended with the supposed religious prohibition.

“We believe that, besides nuclear weapons, other types of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons, also pose a serious threat to humanity,” he said. “We consider the use of such weapons as haram (religiously forbidden) and believe that it is everyone’s duty to make efforts to secure humanity against this great disaster.”

While the supposed fatwas dated Nov. 2004 and Aug. 2005 said the prohibition applied to the “production, storage, and use” of nuclear weapons, the one dated Feb. 2012 only mentions “possession” and the one dated Apr. 2010 only refers to the “use” of such weapons.

Among those who have voiced skepticism about the value of the reported fatwa are Muslims.

After then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the fatwa with Turkish leaders in 2012, Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the London-based, Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat, wrote in a column that 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 (concealing or disguising beliefs).

“[T]he fatwa seems to have been created to convince a western audience of Iran’s peaceful intentions, rather than a domestic one,” Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran specialist doing Ph.D. research at King’s College, London, wrote last year.

“The Iranian campaign for the international community to take the fatwa seriously is based on the Islamic Republic’s ideology and strategy,” she said. “The fatwa is a way of defying the international community and undermining its will.”

The notion that nuclear weapons are somehow “un-Islamic” appears at odds with Islamic Pakistan’s approach. Pakistani religious and political leaders reconcile their religion with their country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, prime minister at the time Pakistan was developing its weapons program in the 1970s, is credited with coining the term “Islamic bomb.”

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