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Jame'eye Baaz | The Flexibility of Khamenei's So-Called 'Nuclear Fatwa'

by ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI

05 Jun 2012 04:22Comments

Some things are certain and lasting...and then there are Supreme Leaders' "fatwas."

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Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a doctoral student in modern Middle East studies at Queens College, University of Oxford. Jame'eye Baaz -- "open society," à la Karl Popper -- is a blog about Iranian politics.
[ blog ] I find it most curious that some Western commentators believe that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's fatwa banning nuclear weapons is "well-documented." There has been plenty written about it, certainly, but I have never seen the fatwa itself written down per se or even appropriately documented in either official or unofficial literature.

Except for Mehdi Khalaji's excellent piece in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) policy brief "Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran's Proliferation Strategy," nothing all that serious on the subject has been written in either English or Persian, as far as I know.

Oral and written fatwas have historically had equal weighting, but all I have seen are certain declarations and denials by Ayatollah Khamenei in Friday Prayer sermons and various other speeches -- for instance, here ("Bayanat dar khotbe-ha-ye namaz jom'eh-ye Tehran," November 5, 2004) and here ("Bayanat dar didar-e daneshgahiyan-e semnan," November 6, 2006). Perhaps the best illustration is his address to the supposed first global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation conference that was held in Tehran two years ago ("Payam be nakhostin konforans-e beynolmellali-ye khal'-e selah-e haste'i va adam-e esha'eh," April 16, 2010). To be fair, in these and other such statements, Khamenei declares the use of nuclear weapons to be haram (religiously unlawful), but it is questionable whether they actually amount to a fatwa.

We should not forget that these speeches are the speeches of the highest political authority in the land, and the speeches of a man who stands at the helm of Iran's Supreme National Security Council when it comes to the nuclear issue. Mixing and matching his "political" and "religious" authority is a recipe for troublesome and muddled conclusions.

I would say that such political declarations, insofar as they are declarations and not formal juridical rulings, make it costly for the IRI to overturn the publicly stated position not to pursue a nuclear capability. I say this because, obviously Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly stated that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons, and various members of the IRI elite -- for example, Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary, and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, to name just two -- have publicly acknowledged the existence of Khamenei's fatwa and declaimed that it carries the highest authority.

Dr. Hassan Rowhani, former chief of the Supreme National Security Council, similarly has come out in a recent interview stating, "This fatwa is more important to us than the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and its Additional Protocol, more important than any other law."

Such statements, because they have been publicly made and reiterated in the forum of world public opinion, obviously put the IRI leadership, in the event it decides to develop a nuclear weapons capability, into a corner of sorts. In short, the IRI is to some extent constrained because of the amount of political capital and credibility it has invested and banked for the sake of convincing the international community that its program is for strictly civilian purposes. A reversal or violation of such public declarations would prove costly. However, the IRI has borne some very heavy costs before and has concealed its enrichment activities from the international community in the past. The memoir of former IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei, The Age of Deception, provides a good overview of the IRI's past mendacity in this regard, and ElBaradei isn't someone who can easily be accused of inveterate hostility to the Islamic Republic.

This post merely attempts to convey the point that an unhealthy complacency should not set in on how we view Ayatollah Khamenei's so-called "nuclear fatwa."

(1) There is doubt over whether such a fatwa even exists, and,

(2) Even if such a fatwa does exist, it does not mean that it couldn't be changed as and when deemed necessary by the Islamic Republic's political leadership.

The often lofty status afforded to Khamenei's fatwa by some Western commentators and Islamic Republic officials also seems to betray a misunderstanding, intentional or not, of how fatwas work. Fatwas can change and are far from immutable, and vary from mojtahed to mojtahed, and in accordance with the exigencies of time, place, and circumstance. A mojtahed, or cleric who has the certified ability to practice ejtehad, legal reasoning, is not constrained or bound by the fatwas of other mojtaheds. They can differ on all manner of issues, from the permissibility of suicide bombing or eating shellfish to the virtues of nuclear weapons.

Obviously, the position of Ayatollah Khamenei is different insofar as he is the undisputed political ruler of the Islamic Republic. His religious authority, however, has always been contested and continues to be subject to slights and jibes in the religious seminaries of Qom and Najaf. His former teacher Grand Ayatollah Montazeri delivered a famous speech in 1997 in which he impugned Khamenei's religious credentials, which led to Montazeri's house arrest and the ransacking of his hosseiniyeh (religious center).

In brief, a key point, which seems to always get lost in such discussions, is that Khamenei could conceivably issue a new fatwa, if the fatwa in question even exists. And I'm sure that "if" remains a question in the minds of many.

Not only that, but since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's famous January 1988 decree in which he proclaimed that the sharia can be suspended in the name of the maslahat, or "public interest," of the nezaam, "political system," we have witnessed a situation whereby ultimately, whatever the Supreme Leader deems in the regime's interest is by definition "sacrosanct."

In fact, it is also often suggested that Khomeini himself issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons. If he did, I have not seen it in Sahife-ye Imam, his collected speeches, or anywhere else. I would be most grateful if readers could provide me with the relevant source for the fatwa in question, if it does indeed exist.

A secret fatwa is perhaps viable, but would seem self-defeating and hardly conducive to allaying the international community's fears surrounding Iran's nuclear program. It also wouldn't make any sense today given that Khamenei and IRI officials have repeatedly mentioned its existence in public. Moreover, if secret fatwas are being issued, what assurance is there that Khamenei's current, alleged fatwa couldn't be secretly changed once again? Not only that, but even supposing it does exist, it is well-established that the fatwas of deceased mojtaheds cease to be obligatory for their followers or anyone else. A couple of mojtaheds have disagreed on this point, but they are in the overwhelming minority.

On the issue of Khomeini's alleged fatwa prohibiting the production, storage, and use of weapons of mass destruction, it is perhaps worth mentioning Khomeini's "exceptional" position as Leader of the Revolution and Founder of the Islamic state. Indeed, he is referred to as the "Imam" in official nomenclature, a term traditionally reserved exclusively for the 12 impeccable Imams of Twelver Shiism. However, history shows that even the fatwas of the "Imam" are not immune from being disregarded. A good example of how Khomeini's fatwas are not eternally binding, or how the IRI leadership adopts a lax attitude toward them in favor of political expediency, is the Salman Rushdie case. The fatwa, or to be more accurate, the hokm ("decree" or "executive order") that deemed Rushdie an "apostate" (for which the legal punishment is death) for writing The Satanic Verses near the end of Khomeini's life was after his death placed in abeyance by the IRI authorities. The assurances by the Iranian government that the hokm would not be implemented coincided with the reestablishment of relations between Iran and the UK.

This example might be thought illustrative of how fatwas and "decrees," even those issued by the Islamic Republic's most "holy personage," can be overturned if and when political calculations are at stake. There is little reason to think this sort of thing couldn't possibly happen in the case of Khomeini's alleged fatwa relating to weapons of mass destruction. (Again, I would be grateful if evidence for such a fatwa could be provided.) I doubt the international community regard mere verbal assurances with a great deal of confidence. Moreover, I was under the impression that there has been a longstanding consensus that Iran possessed chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), even if debate continues over whether Iran actually ever used them on a limited scale. That is, however, a question for another time.

The issue of the fatwa's ability to change in accordance with political expediency is further reinforced by Iran's alleged nuclear weapons research prior to 2004. If the IAEA report, based on information provided by various intelligence agencies, is accurate and experiments relating to nuclear weapons research were undertaken at sites such as Parchin and possibly elsewhere, then this is a further indication that religious decrees issued by the IRI leadership can be changed and adapted in accordance with what the Supreme Leader and Islamic Republic elite deem necessary and in the politico-religious interests of the system.

There are plenty of other examples of fatwas' flexibility that relate to more banal topics -- for instance, Khomeini's rulings on chess, television, and music, along with his calls for a "dynamic fiqh" (fiqh-e puya), which emphasized that fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) must continually adapt and evolve. Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei and the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah have also issued numerous "progressive" fatwas relating to women's rights and issues. Unlike the putative "nuclear fatwa," however, these fatwas are easily traceable and located online.

An important point is also made by the Iranian blogger Manouchehr Honarmand here. He argues that while we can see that moghalledin, or followers of both Khomeini and Khamenei, have received fatwas, in the latter instance relating to the social networking site Facebook, stamped and sealed so that they cannot be altered or falsified, we have never seen this in the case of the "nuclear fatwa." Why?

Finally, I think the issue of the "nuclear fatwa" is further complicated by another matter worthy of consideration. Even if nuclear weapons have been deemed haram for purposes of aggression, as some of Ayatollah Khamenei's statements indicate, there is a question of whether in the future a justification could be wrought for defensive purposes. Iran's decision to pursue a nuclear weapons capability could potentially square the circle here, since it could be justified insofar as the Iranian leadership could maintain that such a latent capability is strictly for the defense and preservation of the Islamic regime.

As a caveat, I would like to reiterate, as I am sure readers know, that Western and Israeli intelligence seem to concur at present that the Iranian leadership has not yet taken the decision to weaponize its program. This comment is merely a response to what I have seen as an excessive and uncritical emphasis on Khamenei's fatwa without requisite contextualization and, furthermore, an acknowledgment that things could possibly change in the future, if the IRI leadership decides it is expedient.

Copyright © 2012 Essi Khan

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