Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during his visit to the IRGC Aerospace Force achievements exhibition in Tehran, November 19, 2023

Khamenei's Nuclear Fatwa: A Fiction From The Start

Wednesday, 04/10/2024

Analysis: For two decades, Iran's Supreme Leader's "nuclear fatwa" has served as a shield for Tehran's denial of nuclear weapon ambitions. But how trustworthy can this fatwa really be?

"According to the [Supreme] Leader’s opinion, going in this direction [making the atomic bomb] is now forbidden, because he is a mujtahid [religious scholar]; maybe he will change [his opinion] tomorrow," Shahid Beheshti University President Mahmood-Reza Aghamiri said recently in an interview.

The nuclear engineer went on to posit that if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “opinion” changed – Iran would indeed have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon.

Amidst the ongoing tensions between the regime and Israel, following the killing of seven members of the IRGC’s Quds Force in Damascus and the subsequent pressure from anti-Israeli Islamists on Tehran to respond, the raising of the fatwa has heightened concerns regionally and internationally about the potential spread of war.

Contrary to widespread perception, a fatwa itself is not a legal document – but, an advisory opinion on Islamic law offered by a high-ranking cleric. It is not set in stone and can be changed at any time.

But nonetheless, when examining Khamenei's "nuclear fatwa", three questions have remained unanswered for public opinion from the outset: Was the opinion expressed by Khamenei really a fatwa? Is Ali Khamenei in the position of issuing fatwas? And, how and for what purpose was this opinion sold to the global community under the title of a fatwa?

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visits the Iranian centrifuges in Tehran, Iran June 11, 2023.

Fatwa, opinion or statement?

His statement to the nuclear disarmament conference on April 10, 2010, was presented as Khamenei's "nuclear fatwa". Typically, heads of state issue statements or messages to conferences, not fatwas. The content of this message bears no resemblance to the fatwas issued by Shia jurists throughout history. Khamenei's statement opens with "we believe," a phrase not traditionally used by Islamic jurists to begin their fatwas. It reads:

"We believe that besides nuclear weapons, other types of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons also pose a serious threat to humanity. The Iranian nation … feels more than any other nation the danger that is caused by the production and stockpiling of such weapons… We consider the use of such weapons as haram [forbidden] and believe that everyone must make efforts to secure humanity against this great disaster.”

Shia jurists do not include public opinions within the text of a fatwa. In the Shia jurisprudence tradition, jurists typically also do not provide reasons for their fatwas within the body of the text itself, contrasting with Khamenei's approach of arguing for his opinion in this statement. It is also in contrast with other fatwas, given the rarity of fatwas issued on this particular topic. Integrating this opinion into any of the 52 chapters of Shia jurisprudence, as outlined in classical Shia texts, proves difficult.

Mufti or leader?

Before and after becoming the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei never held the authoritative position required to issue fatwas. His appointment to the leadership by the Assembly of Experts occurred in the absence of a high-ranking mujtahid knowledgeable in governance – indeed, he was not a source of emulation.

For this very reason, the constitution was revised (Article 5) so that a non-mufti can also become a leader. At the time, one of the prominent Shia jurists in Qom, Hossein Ali Montazeri rejected him being a mufti: "He [Khamenei] is not at the level of religious authority; he has no right to issue a fatwa." Some religious organizations in Qom have similarly rejected his position as a mufti.

Hossein Ali Montazeri (right) was once the designated successor to the Irn’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, but they had a falling-out in 1989 over government policies that Montazeri claimed infringed on people's freedom.

The history of this “fatwa”

In 2003, at the onset of Iran's nuclear crisis, Khamenei first declared the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons as forbidden. Six years later, during a more complex phase of this crisis in February 2008, he reiterated this prohibition in a public speech.

The statement, which was presented as Khamenei's fatwa, was drawn from earlier documents and released during a period of increased global scrutiny for Tehran. This occurred as the international community focused on revelations concerning diverse aspects of Iran's nuclear program, leading the UN Security Council to pass successive resolutions against it. Between 2006 and 2010, six sanctions resolutions targeting Tehran's nuclear endeavors were enacted, and Khamenei's purported fatwa was released in 2010 amidst this backdrop.

Framing this opinion as a fatwa aimed to alleviate pressure by invoking religious beliefs that would persuade the audience of its credibility. Of course, the international community had not yet fully understood the blurred lines between religious and political leadership in Iran, with some viewing Khamenei as the country's spiritual leader.

This fatwa also pursued two other goals: to make the nuclear program appear peaceful, which was doubted by the international community, and to provide legitimacy for the project of building the Islamic Empire, of which nuclearization was considered an integral part.

The authorities even tried to formalize this fake fatwa by incorporating it into a United Nations resolution. By presenting Khamenei's opinion as a fatwa, the orchestrators showed deep insight into international dynamics. Aware of the pressures on Iran, they aimed to lessen these by strategically blending religious rhetoric with political maneuvers, targeting global perceptions and responses to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The market for this fatwa

Initially, this alleged fatwa did not garner significant attention from the media and Western politicians. However, from 2013 to 2015, during the JCPOA negotiations, it was frequently cited and mentioned by the media, think tanks, and American officials.

The book "The Undisclosed Secret" by former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and colleagues about the nuclear negotiations reveals in various sections how the Iranian negotiating team leveraged this fatwa to steer the JCPOA in their favor.

This is what US Secretary of State John Kerry said about the fake fatwa in 2014, showing a degree of naiveté on the issue :

“I have great respect for a fatwa. A fatwa is a very highly regarded message of religious importance. And when any fatwa is issued, I think people take it seriously, and so do we, even though it's not our practice. But we have great respect for what it means… the art, the requirement here, is to translate the fatwa into a legally binding, globally recognized, international understanding. … President Obama and I both are extremely welcoming and grateful for the fact that the supreme leader has issued a fatwa”

Thus, the embassies and offices of the Islamic Republic abroad, particularly the representative office in New York, which has focused on building a lobby over the last two decades, have played an undeniable role in the production, distribution, and promotion of the Supreme Leader’s opinion as a fatwa.

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