The Fatwa Against Nuclear Weapons

Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons has been a puzzling part of the Iranian nuclear standoff. He and Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast have again emphasized the importance of that fatwa.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons has been a puzzling part of the Iranian nuclear standoff. He and Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast have again emphasized the importance of that fatwa.

It’s obvious that different perceptions in Iran and the West of a fatwa, a legal opinion by an Islamic scholar, are playing a role here. The Catholic Church has somewhat similar pronouncements by the Pope, but they have played no part in international relations for centuries. Westerners have become quite removed from religious pronouncements as affecting their lives.

How different is that for Iranians? I certainly don’t know, and I suspect that the negotiators don’t either.

Ayatollah Khamenei is the leader of Iran’s secular state. State leaders have been known to say things that are convenient for their secular interests. How can we know which hat he is wearing when he talks about the fatwa?

The latest statements come as another round of negotiations draws near, and there seems to be an emphasis on IAEA access to Parchin as well. Khamenei seems to be saying that the IAEA and the West must believe that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons because he has stated that such a thing would be a sin.

“There is nothing higher than the exalted supreme leader’s fatwa to define the framework for our activities in the nuclear field,” sais Mehmanparast. If we could take that at face value, then all would be well. In a highly authoritarian system, this may be the case. That would account for a great deal of frustration on the part of the Iranians.

Some westerners argue that Islam allows for deception of enemies and that such deception may underlie the fatwa. That brings up the question of whether deception (of the faithful as well as those outside the faith) takes precedence over clarification of the requirements of the faith. My own uneducated feeling on this is that clarification would win out. So let’s put that aside.

The timing, along with the Iranian insistence that the fatwa makes it unnecessary for the IAEA to visit Parchin, suggests to suspicious Western minds that the purpose of the fatwa is to get the West to leave Iran’s nuclear program alone so that they can go whatever way they want with it. That inflames Western concerns about Iranian intentions. It’s an Iranian blind spot if they can’t figure this out.

The timing of this statement could also emphasize how important settling this issue is to the Iranians. But then, the suspicious Westerner wants to know, why not grant access to Parchin and provide some confidence-building measures like ending 20% enrichment. If you are so religious about your opposition to nuclear weapons, then you should be volunteering to do these things.

I suspect, in my uneducated way, that the reason why Iran does not offer these things is that they feel that the absolute character of the fatwa is being disrespected, and therefore the Ayatollah and the nation are being disrespected. So making good-will gestures in response to this disrespect will likely bring even more disrespect.

This is a pretty serious bind. Perhaps a request from the West to bolster the fatwa with access to Parchin would get past the possible disrespect.

This is likely to be a minor part of the negotiations, at least from the Western view. But what if it really is a central point for the Iranians, as Mehmanparast implies? That’s where negotiation out of the view of the press would be helpful. It would be easier to ask questions and clarify.




Photos: Mehmanparast and Khamenei. Both are from sources that provide an Iranian view of the fatwa.

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