Has Iran’s Supreme Leader issued a fatwa prohibiting the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons? U.S. policymakers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seem to think so. They believe that such a fatwa, or religious ruling, may prove critical in negotiations to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions short of a bomb.
Given that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not only Iran’s foremost political leader but also the country’s foremost spiritual authority, a ruling of this sort would mark a major breakthrough. Such a possibility has certainly been on Clinton’s mind. Earlier this month, on the eve of the first round of negotiations in Istanbul between American and Iranian diplomats, she explained: If the fatwa “is indeed a statement of principle, of values, then it is a starting point for being operationalized, which means that it serves as the entryway into a negotiation as to how you demonstrate that it is indeed a sincere, authentic statement of conviction.”
The fatwa is believed to date back to 2005—or at least that’s the date that Iranian officials cite. For instance, just two weeks ago a Washington Post op-ed (“Iran: We do not want nuclear weapons”) by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi referred to the 2005 ruling: “Almost seven years ago, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei made a binding commitment. He issued a religious edict—a fatwa—forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.”
Well, that would seem to solve everything. If Iran doesn’t really want the bomb, then the confrontation that so many fear will have been averted. Indeed, if Khamenei has declared that a nuclear bomb is un-Islamic, then the second round of negotiations between Iran and the United States scheduled for Baghdad at the end of next month is unnecessary.
Unfortunately, no one can find the fatwa. And even if it did exist, it would appear that it is nothing more than a ploy to sow confusion among Iranian adversaries—especially the United States.
Last week the Jerusalem-based Middle East Media Research Institute released a report arguing that Khamenei’s anti-nuclear fatwa doesn’t exist. MEMRI staffers could find no evidence of any such fatwa on the websites belonging to Khamenei—neither his personal site, nor the one devoted exclusively to his fatwas. MEMRI concluded: “No such fatwa ever existed or was ever published, and that media reports about it are nothing more than a propaganda ruse on the part of the Iranian regime apparatuses—in an attempt to deceive top U.S. administration officials and the others mentioned above.”
Others beg to differ with MEMRI’s findings, including Middle East experts like Juan Cole. Last week, the University of Michigan professor argued that Khamenei did issue the fatwa—even though Cole couldn’t find the ruling or even notice of it on the Iranian News Agency’s website. According to Cole, the official state news-agency report has simply “gone into the deep web” and the fact that it isn’t surfacing is “irrelevant.”
Let’s say though, for the sake of argument, that such a fatwa does exist. The fact that American officials seem to be basing U.S. policy on the existence of a fatwa represents a much more serious problem than the prospect of an Iranian bomb.
Cole, Clinton, and the U.S. State Department have missed the essential point: If there is indeed a fatwa, why would Iran’s commander-in-chief, Khamenei, violate an edict set down by the country’s preeminent religious authority, who happens to be the very same person? In other words, Khamenei is still moving toward acquiring the bomb that Khamenei is alleged to have forbidden.
In their more lucid moments, American policymakers know that the Iranians really are building a bomb. Otherwise, Washington would not be leveling sanctions against the Islamic Republic for its nascent nuclear weapons program. Nor would the U.S. intelligence community devote so much attention and so many resources to tracking the program, and we’d be able to reassure our regional allies, especially Israel and Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, that Iran surely can’t be building a bomb, because “Hey, they have a fatwa against it.”
But the fact that Tehran is indeed moving ahead with the bomb suggests that even if the fatwa does exist, it is simply intended as an information operation meant to confuse the United States. That American officials appear to be so easily taken in by this propaganda campaign damages U.S. prestige. Our allies, even in the Muslim world, wonder why the Obama Administration would bother taking seriously a fatwa from a state sponsor of terror. After all, the regime has issued numerous outrageous fatwas, including one that opined on the permissibility of sex with chickens, and another that called for the head of novelist Salman Rushdie.
But give the Iranians some credit. By cloaking their disinformation campaign in exotic garb, the regime in Tehran targeted an American weakness and hit home. Since 9/11, the United States’ engagement in the Middle East has been scored with error after error, partly because we have made Middle Eastern cultures seem more alien than they really are in an attempt to be culturally sensitive.
Consider, for instance, the New York Times account of the anti-nuclear fatwa: “[S]ome analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.”
Yes, taqiyya—or deceiving nonbelievers in order to protect yourself—is a significant concept in Shia Islam, but so what? If, say, a Shia burglar is caught with stolen goods in Brooklyn, and he tells the NYPD that he actually just found the TV and toaster, is he practicing taqiyya, or is he simply lying? When we’re dealing with Muslims and the Middle East, Americans have proven virtually incapable of seeing matters clearly. There’s always some exotic interpretation on offer when the more mundane explanation seems politically incorrect.
In effect, this country’s intellectual and political elite—including policymakers from the Bush and Obama Administrations—consistently entertain Orientalist conceits. The Muslim world, in their view, is a region of surpassing strangeness that can only be comprehended, and even then only dimly, by familiarizing ourselves with alien concepts, like taqiyya and fatwas.
Similarly, we seem incapable of grasping how Muslim leaders are motivated by the sort of mundane desires that consume their Western counterparts, like power and wealth. No, that’s banal, and insufficiently Oriental. The Iranians don’t really care about becoming the hegemon in the oil-rich Persian Gulf and lording it over their Sunni Arab neighbors; all they’re really interested in is the return of the 12th imam. After all, they’re so different from us; they write fatwas!
The belief of U.S. policymakers that somehow the anti-nuclear fatwa must play a role in formulating our Iran strategy should be cause for radical reassessment. Over the last decade, the United States has failed to win two wars in the Middle East, not because we did not sufficiently understand the region, but because our almost comical sensitivity to other cultures and societies suggests we have lost faith in our own good sense. It is no wonder American policymakers dread a conflict with Iran so much that they are looking for exit strategies in a fatwa.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).