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Obama, the Bomb and the Fatwa: The Bizarre Twist, Iran's Ayyatollah And One Barack

20 March 2014

By Amir Taheri

When lobbying to prevent further sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, US President Barack Obama often refers to a fatwa, an Islamic religious opinion. According to Obama, the fatwa supposedly issued by "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, confirms Tehran's claims that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Obama does not quote the text of the mysterious fatwa, nor does he tell us where and when he saw it.

The trouble is that no one has actually seen the fatwa, although many people comment on it. In a bizarre twist, some mullahs even quote Obama as the source that confirms the existence of the fatwa. "Our Supreme Guide has issued a fatwa against the use of nuclear weapons, as confirmed by the President of the United States," Ayatollah Mahmoud Yussefwand told the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) last week.

Presented as a "Theological Expert of the Scientific Center," the ayatollah was one of more than 100 mullahs and government officials who attended a two-day conference in Tehran on "A Theological View of Nuclear Weapons." None of the speakers claimed that he had seen the text of the fatwa. Nor did anyone suggest that the fatwa—if there were such a thing—was meant to stop the Islamic Republic from securing the means of making a bomb.

A few speakers, including Yussefwand, suggested that the use, though not the building and/or stockpiling of such weapons, might be haram, or forbidden. "Islam uses the term ifsad [corruption] to ban a number of weapons of mass destruction," Yussefwand said. "The term specifically designates poisoning water resources, the cutting down of forests and the use of arson as a weapon of war."

The ayatollah then wondered whether the principle could also apply to nuclear weapons. He did not offer a definite opinion. In other words, no such ban exists at the moment.

Another theologian, Ali-Reza Qorban-Nia, explained that adopting an "Islamic position" on nuclear weapons would not be easy. On the one hand, he argued, such weapons could be banned because they "are blind in targeting," in the sense that they could "wipe out believers and kuffar [infidels] alike." On the other hand, "Shi'ite Islamic rules of war" strongly recommend the use of any weapon that could accelerate the destruction of the enemies of the Umma. According to Qorban-Nia, this is indicated in the principle of ma-yarji bel-fatah, or "that which creates hopes of victory." Thus, if a nuclear bomb could ensure ultimate victory for the believers, it should not be shunned.

To confuse matters further, Ayatollah Bahman Akbari claimed that Khamenei's statements, though not the fatwa, which may not even exist, show that the Islamic Republic sees nuclear weapons as "a deterrent that assures the reciprocal destruction of the adversary." In other words, developing a nuclear arsenal for deterrent purposes could be licit. Akbari also suggested that the issue of a nuclear arsenal be examined "in the context of other weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological." This means that nuclear weapons should not be discussed as a special category, presumably the ultimate evil.

During the seminar, two theologians, Mahmoud Hekmati-Nia and Hashem Zaafarani, criticized Akbari for not actually referring to Khamenei's fatwa. The reason, of course, was that neither Akbari nor anyone else had seen the non-existent document.

The closest reference to Khamenei's fatwa came in a speech by the spokesman for the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency, Behruz Kamalvand, when he said: "Our Supreme Leader has fixed our slogan: ‘Nuclear weapons for no nation, nuclear energy for all nations!'" In other words, the Islamic Republic would be prepared to abandon the military aspects of its nuclear program only in the context of global nuclear disarmament. And, if others had nuclear weapons, why should Iran deny itself such an instrument?

While the conference was under way, Ayatollah Hassan Mamduhi, a member of the Assembly of (Clerical) Experts, offered an enigmatic quotation from the late Ayatollah Aziz-Allah Khoshwaqt to the effect that the Hidden Imam would conclude his Grand Occultation only when his "sword" was ready. "The Return of the Mahdi is conditional on what our nuclear scientists are doing," Mamduhi said, without elaborating. The Tehran media, however, claimed that "The Sword of the Imam" in the modern world could only mean a nuclear arsenal.

A week later, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution, claimed in a Friday sermon that the return of the Hidden Imam was " imminent" thanks to "fantastic progress" achieved by the Islamic Republic in Iran. Ayatollah Khoshwaqt, who died last year, was regarded as Khamenei's teacher and "guru" and a strong opponent of negotiations to limit any aspect of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. His views have found echoes among a number of Khomeinist clerics who argue that, with the US in retreat under Obama, there is no reason to make concessions to the P5+1 group.

One prominent cleric, Ayatollah Mahmoud Nabawian, has published a 40-page essay arguing that Tehran is now in a position to tell the rest of the world to "get lost." Another critic is Muhammad-Javad Larijani, son of an ayatollah and brother of Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani. He argues that Islamic powers should only ask non-Islamic nations to "submit" to God's "Final Word." In 1988, he carried a letter from Ayatollah Khomeini to Mikhail Gorbachev, inviting him to convert to Shi'ism.

Obama would do well to consider three points before beating the drums for the mullahs. The first is that the famous fatwa either does not exist or is couched in the style of obfuscation that would open it to countless interpretations. The least that Obama should do is demand to see the fatwa that he is defending as a text that trumps even international law. The second point is that Khamenei, though a major political figure in Tehran, is not generally regarded as a theological heavyweight. In religious terms, any of the 10 or 12 grand ayatollahs and hundreds of lower-ranked clerics could overrule Khamenei's fatwas.

Finally, Obama should know that the Iran nuclear project is a political issue and not a religious issue to be settled with a fatwa, which is, in any case, just an opinion and in no way legally binding on any individual, let alone the Islamic Republic as a nation-state.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.


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