I’m told that MEMRI, which has its origins in Israeli military intelligence, has put out a statement doubting that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ever issued a fatwa forbidding nuclear weapons. (MEMRI claims to be a 501(c)3 non-profit but is actually an effort to cherry-pick Middle Eastern news to present the most negative face of the Arab world to Americans so as to prejudice them in favor of Israel; in this case it is just doing propaganda).
A Reddit.com contributor has effectively answered this piece of disinformation. This posting points out that the official IRNA news agency said in 2005,
“The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued the Fatwa that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons.”
That this old posting has gone into the deep web and isn’t at the IRNA site is irrelevant. The fatwa was announced by IRNA and has been repeatedly reaffirmed by Khamenei.
Here is the US government transcription, published in 2005, of the relevant portions of the IRNA publication of the official Iranian statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Interestingly, the statement points to hydrocarbon-fueled global warming as one reason for which countries such as Iran need to turn to nuclear energy production:
“Iran Issues Statement at IAEA Board of Governors Meeting
Corrected version: added additional material after IRNA update
Wednesday, August 10, 2005 T11:39:36Z
Journal Code: 2736 Language: ENGLISH Record Type: FULLTEXT
Document Type: FBIS Transcribed Text
Word Count: 1,962
Vienna, Aug 10, IRNA — Iran is a nuclear fuel cycle technology holder, a capability which is exclusively for peaceful purposes, a statement issued by the Islamic Republic at the emergency meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) read here Tuesday evening.
The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued the fatwa (religious decree) that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that Iran shall never acquire these weapons, it added…
“Madam chair, colleagues…
“The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued the fatwa that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office just recently, in his inaugural address reiterated that his government is against weapons of mass destruction and will only pursue nuclear activities in the peaceful domain. The leadership of Iran has pledged at the highest level that Iran will remain a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT and has placed the entire scope of its nuclear activities under IAEA safeguards and Additional Protocol, in addition to undertaking voluntary transparency measures with the agency that have even gone beyond the requirements of the agency’s safeguard system.
“Nuclear energy is expected to become once again a primary source of energy, with the rising demand for oil and gas and the ensuing increase in the prices, which incidentally can sharply accelerate for any political provocation. We should add to this the concerns about the environment, and the world will have no alternative but to revert back to nuclear energy, at least for decades to come… ”
(Description of Source: Tehran IRNA (Internet Version-WWW) in English — official state-run news agency) …
Note also that among the major followers of Khamenei’s fatwas are Shiites of South Lebanon, especially Hizbullah. Hizbullah’s al-Manar news service carried on 13 April 2005 a repost of an item about official Iranian negotiator on nuclear issues, Hassan Rowhani, who met with the the Danish FM and:
“Rowhani stressed during his meeting with the Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller that obeying the fatwa of Khamenei ‘is more important for us than the articles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its additional protocol.’ He explained that the fatwa of the Guide forbids the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons, and that the fatwa is, in the Islamic Republic, an obligatory law.”
أكد روحاني خلال لقائه وزير الخارجية الدنماركي ستيغ مولر أن الأخذ بفتوى خامنئي «اكثر أهمية بالنسبة الينا من بنود معاهدة حظر انتشار الأسلحة النووية والبروتوكول الملحق بها». وأوضح روحاني أن فتوى المرشد تحرم إنتاج وتخزين واستخدام الأسلحة النووية، والفتوى في الجمهورية الإسلامية قانون ملزم.
As I said, the fatwa not only was issued, widely acknowledged by high officials of the Islamic Republic, and considered by them to be binding law, but it has been reaffirmed numerous times. Here is an item from the conservative Iranian news agency Mehr dated April 11, 2012:
“The fatwa that the Supreme Leader has issued is the best guarantee that Iran will never seek to produce nuclear weapons, Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani said on Wednesday.
Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa declaring that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are all haram (prohibited in Islam).”
I think the head of the Iranian judiciary knows a little bit better whether Khamenei issued a fatwa than does a project of Israeli military intelligence.
But let me just add that it is important to understand what a fatwa is. In Islam the laity ask their clerics about how to follow Islamic law. The cleric replies with a considered opinion on the purport of the law, which is called a fatwa. In the Usuli school of Shiite Islam, deriving the law from the relevant sacred texts is achieved in part through the application to them of legal reasoning. That is, the law in some senses inheres in the mind of the jurisprudent. If he reconsiders a case and comes to a different, more mature conclusion later on, he is bound to reverse himself. His followers are bound to follow his most recent conclusions.
A high-ranking cleric appointed as a jurisconsult to the state, who gives official fatwas, is called a mufti. But any trained clerical jurisprudent can issue a fatwa. (The system is virtually identical in Judaism, where rabbis answer the questions of the faithful about halakha or Jewish law with responsa.)
So a fatwa is not like an American law that has to be published in the Congressional Record and in official law books. It is just the conclusion to which a cleric’s reasoning leads him, and which he makes known, even in a letter. In Shiite Islam, laypersons who follow a particular ayatollah are bound by his fatwas. When an ayatollah such as Khamenei delivers oral remarks in public, these have the force of a fatwa and are accepted as such by his followers. That is, Khamenei’s recent statement forbidding nuclear weapons in a speech is in fact a fatwa:
“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.”
There is another consideration. Since Khamenei is not only an ayatollah but also the Supreme Leader, it may well be that this statement is actually more important than a fatwa. It may be considered a hukm or decree of the Supreme Jurisprudent (Vali-yi Faqih), who is charged with setting the legal framework of the Islamic Republic in accordance with revealed Islamic law. That may be what Rowhani meant when he told the Danes that the fatwa is a qanun or law.
(By the way, I wanted to say that my blog post refuting the charge by some analysts that Khamenei might be practicing ‘taqiyya’ or pious dissimulation was not intended as a slam against the NYT correspondent James Risen who reported that this argument was being made by some in the US intelligence community. Mr. Risen was just doing his job in giving us a description of the debate. He has done very brave reporting on, e.g. the Bush administration’s misuse of intelligence in the Iraq War, and has been targeted for legal reprisals by the government, and is admired by those of us who care about the integrity of US intelligence. I was just trying to show that those government analysts who took the taqiyya argument seriously were mistaken.)