When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the talks that were held this week between the P5+1 (five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) and Iran, she detailed how the idea for these negotiations was raised. She explained that she had heard a report from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu about their visit with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to the Turks, Khamenei told them that, under Islam, weapons of mass destruction are prohibited.
Clinton suggested that the supreme leader's stance needed to be "operationalized" and explained: "We will be meeting with the Iranians to discuss how you translate what is a stated belief into a plan of action." However, the religious argument being used by the Iranians to prove that their nuclear program is not military in nature is nothing new. In fact, on Aug. 10, 2005, the Iranian government sent an official letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna stating that "Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued the fatwa that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam." A fatwa is a written opinion on Islamic law, issued by a religious authority.
In the years that followed, several Western governments, including Britain and France, made many repeated inquiries about Khamenei's nuclear fatwa. At the IAEA, Pierre Goldschmidt, the body's former deputy director-general, wanted to see if this fatwa even existed. At a conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies on Feb. 4, 2012, he said that he had actually asked for a copy of the exact text of the nuclear fatwa in 2005 but the Iranians never presented anything in writing.
The Iranians have also presented the argument about a nuclear fatwa with the American press. Even before they sent a letter about the fatwa to the IAEA, the Iranian ambassador to the U.N., Mohammad Javad Zarif, wrote an article on Nov. 5, 2004, in the opinion section of the L.A. Times, in which he referred to "serious ideological restrictions against weapons of mass destruction, including a religious decree issued by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, prohibiting the development and use of nuclear weapons."
The story about the nuclear fatwa made an impression among important commentators in the U.S. Fareed Zakaria, one of the leading analysts on foreign policy in the U.S. wrote a cover story for Newsweek, on May 22, 2009, entitled, "Everything You Know About Iran is Wrong." In it, he wrote that the Iranians may not even want a bomb. Zakaria based his position on the story that "the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral."
To this day, the story of the nuclear fatwa is repeated in the mass media. Just last week, in The Washington Post, Zakaria reminded his readers "the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin." And during a three-part CNN series on Iran that was televised during the week of April 14, 2012, Christiane Amanpour interviewed Mohammad Larijani, a former negotiator, and currently an adviser to Khamenei. Amanpour again heard from Larijani the argument about the nuclear fatwa, which he used during his interview to assuage Western fears. Unfortunately, she did not challenge him on this point.
Yet there are others who have challenged the nuclear fatwa. Mehdi Khalaji is an expert on Shiite Islam who studied in Iran's religious seminaries in Qom, Iran. Currently, he is a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Khalaji agrees that there is no written document that could be described as a fatwa on the subject of nuclear weapons. Khalaji also explains that even if a nuclear fatwa existed, changing a fatwa is common practice among Shiite legal authorities. Then he provides an explanation of how such a change might come about: "... should the needs of the Islamic Republic or the Muslim umma [nation] change, requiring the use of nuclear weapons, the supreme leader could just as well alter his position in response."
Importantly, Khalaji reminds his readers about the use of deception, or taqiyya, that was religiously permitted in Shiite Islam, when the Shiites had to find a way to survive as a minority in Sunni-dominated societies. In his major work on Islamic government, Ayatollah Khomeini described "taqiyya" as an act whose purpose was the "preservation of Islam and the Shii school." Khalaji points out that after coming to power, Khomeini actually stated in 1981, in an address to the Revolutionary Guard: "Islamic law exists to serve the interests of the Muslim community and of Islam ... to save Muslim lives and for the sake of Islam’s survival it is obligatory to lie ..."
In short, all the talk about a nuclear fatwa might just be a case of "taqiyya," or diplomatic deception, especially since the Iranians have refused to provide the West with a document of the supposed fatwa over all these years.
Reports about the Iranian nuclear fatwa actually date it back to 2003. Yet the IAEA disclosed in November 2011 that activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device" took place in 2003 and some of these activities were "ongoing." It also had information that Iran was studying in 2008 and 2009 how to model a nuclear device using weapons grade uranium. Thus whether the famous nuclear fatwa exists or not, what is clear is that Iran persisted in developing an atomic bomb despite the supposed the religious declarations that have been ascribed to Supreme Leader Khamenei.