May 23, 2019

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Revisiting the "nuclear fatwa" and what it teaches us about Iran’s willingness to break its promises

The Washington Post published a “fact check” on President Trump’s claim that under the JCPOA, Iran can build nuclear weapons in seven years.

The article conflates what the West can stop Iran from doing with what Iran has promised not to do. And that is a fatal mistake.

The worst example is this:

It’s worth noting that as part of the JCPOA, Iran said it was bound by this commitment: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”

…Whether the president was referring to “Termination Day” in 2025, or to the portions of the JCPOA that sunset in 2026, Iran has pledged to never develop nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, the IAEA’s Additional Protocol and other parts of the JCPOA — all of which Iran has committed to — run well past 2025, and key provisions apply indefinitely.

In other words, don’t worry: Iran promised!

Let’s go back in time to the 1984, when the Ayatollah Khomeini first supposedly issued a fatwa against the building of nuclear weapons. Gareth Porter in Foreign Policy documents the event in an interview with Mohsen Rafighdoost, former minister of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) during the Iran/Iraq war:

Rafighdoost prepared a report on all the specialized groups he had formed and went to discuss it with Khomeini, hoping to get his approval for work on chemical and nuclear weapons.  “When Khomeini read the report, he reacted to the chemical-biological-nuclear team by asking, ‘What is this?’” Rafighdoost recalled.

Khomeini ruled out development of chemical and biological weapons as inconsistent with Islam.

Rafighdoost also told Khomeini that the group had “a plan to produce nuclear weapons.” That could only have been a distant goal in 1984, given the rudimentary state of Iran’s nuclear program. At that point, Iranian nuclear specialists had no knowledge of how to enrich uranium and had no technology with which to do it. But in any case, Khomeini closed the door to such a program. “We don’t want to produce nuclear weapons,” Rafighdoost recalls the supreme leader telling him.

That edict from Khomeini ended the idea of seeking nuclear weapons, according to Rafighdoost.

And in December 1987:

Khomeini also repeated his edict forbidding work on nuclear weapons, telling him, “Don’t talk about nuclear weapons at all.”

Rafighdoost understood Khomeini’s prohibition on the use or production of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons as a fatwa — a judgment on Islamic jurisprudence by a qualified Islamic scholar. It was never written down or formalized, but that didn’t matter, because it was issued by the “guardian jurist” of the Islamic state — and was therefore legally binding on the entire government. “When Imam said it was haram [forbidden], he didn’t have to say it was fatwa,” Rafighdoost explained.

The “famous” Iranian fatwa against nuclear weapons by Khomeini’s successor Khamenei, which President Obama noted in a speech at the UN, was actually written in the mid-1990s according to Porter, who then says how supposedly iron clad it was:

The analysis of Khamenei’s fatwa has been flawed not only due to a lack of understanding of the role of the “guardian jurist” in the Iranian political-legal system, but also due to ignorance of the history of Khamenei’s fatwa. A crucial but hitherto unknown fact is that Khamenei had actually issued the anti-nuclear fatwa without any fanfare in the mid-1990s in response to a request from an official for his religious opinion on nuclear weapons. Mousavian recalls seeing the letter in the office of the Supreme National Security Council, where he was head of the Foreign Relations Committee from 1997 to 2005. The Khamenei letter was never released to the public…

Since 2012, the official stance of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has been to welcome the existence of Khamenei’s anti-nuclear fatwa. Obama even referred to it in his U.N. General Assembly speech in September 2013. But it seems clear that Obama’s advisors still do not understand the fatwa’s full significance: Secretary of State John Kerry told journalists in July, “The fatwa issued by a cleric is an extremely powerful statement about intent,” but then added, “It is our need to codify it.”

That statement, like most of the commentary on Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons, has confused fatwas issued by any qualified Muslim scholar with fatwas by the supreme leader on matters of state policy. The former are only relevant to those who follow the scholar’s views; the latter, however, are binding on the state as a whole in Iran’s Shiite Islam-based political system, holding a legal status above mere legislation.

The full story of Khomeini’s wartime fatwa against chemical weapons shows that when the “guardian jurist” of Iran’s Islamic system issues a religious judgment against weapons of mass destruction as forbidden by Islam, it overrides all other political-military considerations. 

Yet, as Netanyahu’s Mossad revelations confirmed, Iran had an active and specific nuclear program well after these supposed fatwas against nuclear weapons. 

If Iran’s solemn pledge to never work on nuclear weapons has been proven to be worthless because of the Iranian nuclear weapons program before 2003 (that “everyone” now agrees existed in the wake of Netanyahu’s speech,) then why are Iran’s solemn pledges to adhere to the JCPOA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty worth any more today?

The fact that so many of Iran’s nuclear activities are literally unverifiable under JCPOA is itself the best reason to fix or scrap it. However, Iran’s history of lying and covering up its nuclear weapons program, after solemnly pledging tha tsuch activities are against Islamic law, is really what proves that any agreement that supposedly bars Iran from ever building nuclear weapons is worthless.

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