The Iranian and Chinese teams at the negotiations in Istanbul this weekend between the UN Security Council plus Germany on the one hand, and Iran on the other, are leaking that the meetings were felt productive and that the group will reconvene in Baghdad on May 23. The price of petroleum fell in Asian markets on the news of the negotiations.
It is said that Iranian negotiators stressed that the decisions on the nuclear program are taken by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and that he has given fatwas or considered legal rulings, against having or using nuclear weapons.
New York Times intelligence correspondent James Risen reported the debates inside the US intelligence community regarding Khamenei’s stance.
The analysts who talked to him acknowledged that Khamenei has repeatedly denounced having or using nuclear weapons. But skeptics among them pointed to two counter-arguments.
One is that Khamenei criticized Muammar Qaddafi for giving up his nuclear plans in the face of Western pressure, which left him a sitting duck when NATO turned on him.
The other is that Shiite Muslims practice taqiyya or pious dissimulation. That is, they are allowed to lie for their faith under certain circumstances.
These are the only two counter-arguments the analysts appear to have conveyed to Mr. Risen, and they are both false.
What Khamenei said about Qaddafi does not imply that Khamenei wants a nuclear weapon for Iran. Qaddafi did not have a nuclear weapon. But having a nuclear program of some sort could function as a deterrent to foreign invasion, assuming the invaders could not know exactly how far the traget country was from having an atom bomb. Nuclear latency or a nuclear breakout capability, where a country could quickly construct a nuclear warhead if it felt sufficiently threatened, is probably what Iran is actually trying for. Khamenei’s statement on Libya is perfectly in accord with the principle that nuclear latency can have deterrent effects.
As for taqiyya, or pious dissimulation, it is widely misrepresented by Muslim-haters and does not apply in Khamenei’s case. (The analysts quoted may or may not be bigots, but it is certainly wrong to see all Muslims or all Shiites as inveterate liars assured of divine forgiveness for their trespesses).
It is often alleged by the haters that all Muslims recognize a principle whereby it is all right to lie about their true beliefs. Some weird Scandinavian smear of Muslims went viral on the internets that began with falsehoods about all Muslims being licensed to lie. But in fact Islamic ethics forbids lying (kidhb), and it is mainly the Shiite branch of Islam that practiced taqiyya as a doctrine, not the Sunni. (There is a distinction between occasional Sunni mentions of taqiyya and a Shiite doctrine of same.)
For Shiites, who were often a minority in early Muslim societies, the doctrine of pious dissimulation was permission to say that they were actually Sunni Muslims if saying that would save their lives or their big property.
Al-Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1022) of Baghdad, a great Shiite scholar, wrote:
“”I say that taqiyya is permissible in religion when there is fear for one’s life. It may [also] be sometimes permitted when there is danger to one’s property or when the well-being [of the community] may be promoted. I say that sometimes it is obligatory and its observance becomes a religious duty, and sometimes it is permissible but not obligatory . . .”
(Etan Kohlberg, “Some Imāmī-shīʿī Views on Taqiyya,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1975), p. 400).
But as Kohlberg notes, there are restrictions on the practice of pious dissimulation. The Shiite would have to feel that his or her lives and property were in immediate danger. That is, if you had a Sunni mob with torches coming up the hill to your house, you could go out and say you were Sunni.
But say some Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school believe drinking wine is all right. A Shiite could not join them in a glass of wine even when practicing pious dissimulation. You can dissimulate your basic religious identity to protect your life or big property, but you can’t just throw religious law out the window on a wholesale basis.
That is, it would not be permitted for a Shiite religious scholar in no immediate danger of being killed to issue a false fatwa on some issue other than whether he was a Sunni or Shiite, out of pious dissimulation.
Taqiyya is therefore not a license to just lie about anything at all, or to commit perfidy. It is just a permission to avoid dying uselessly because of sectarian prejudice.
From 1501 Iran had a Shiite dynasty and it gradually became a Shiite-majority country. The existence of a powerful Shiite society over centuries brought into question the need for pious dissimulation. After all, in Shiite Iran, it was the Sunnis who were often persecuted or discriminated against. In the twentieth century, the tide of Shiite legal opinion has been running against pious dissimulation.
The great Shiite scholar Husayn Al Kashif al-Ghita’ (d. 1954) wrote of taqiyya, according to Kohlberg, “(a) It is obligatory if its abandonment would cause useless death; (b) When a person might derive an inner strength from publicly professing his true beliefs, he is at liberty to follow his impulse and abandon taqiyya, though he may still practise it; (c) Taqiyya is forbidden if its practice would lead to the spreading of falsehood and injustice.”
Then we come to the Khomeinist tradition. Imam Ruhullah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, demanded that taqiyya be abandoned in favor of holy war or jihad. Shiite expert Rainer Brunner argues that pious dissimulation has “completely lost its importance” in contemporary, Shiite-majority Iran.
So the idea that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the theocratic leader of a Shiite-majority Islamic Republic, would give a dishonest fatwa about a key principle in Islamic law (the prohibition on killing innocent non-combatants in war) is a non-starter. Khamenei, being in Khomeini’s tradition, is bound by the latter’s hostility to dissimulation. Moreover, there is no imminent threat of death hanging over Khamenei’s head that would justify such dissimulation even in classical Shiite Islamic law.
In March, Khamenei again said,
“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.”
Khamenei has been perfectly consistent on this issue for many years. Moreover, the tradition of jurisprudential thinking on which he is drawing, which forbids the killing of innocent non-combatants in war, is well known.
Even by the laws of classical Shiism, no such formal ruling by a Shiite clerical leader could legitimately be dissimulation. If you can’t dishonestly so much as drink wine, you certainly couldn’t dishonestly make and blow up an atomic bomb! But in today’s Khomeinist, Shiite-majority Iran, such dissimulation would be not even be considered.
Some argue that the Prophet Muhammad allowed the misleading of the enemy in war. But if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been so much as a wise man, much less a prophet. There is a key difference between misleading your enemy and issuing a binding legal ruling to your own community!
So the taqiyya argument is just some weird form of Islamophobia, and policy-makers and analysts can safely disregard it.