Iran´s Missing Nuclear Fatwa (HUDSON INSTITUTE) by Lee Smith Tablet Magazine 04/25/12)
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Has Iran´s Supreme Leader issued a fatwa prohibiting the manufacture
and use of nuclear weapons? U.S. policymakers, including Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, seem to think so. They believe that such a
fatwa, or religious ruling, may prove critical in negotiations to
stop Iran´s nuclear ambitions short of a bomb.
Given that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not only Iran´s foremost
political leader but also the country´s foremost spiritual authority,
a ruling of this sort would mark a major breakthrough. Such a
possibility has certainly been on Clinton´s mind. Earlier this month,
on the eve of the first round of negotiations in Istanbul between
American and Iranian diplomats, she explained: If the fatwa "is
indeed a statement of principle, of values, then it is a starting
point for being operationalized, which means that it serves as the
entryway into a negotiation as to how you demonstrate that it is
indeed a sincere, authentic statement of conviction."
The fatwa is believed to date back to 2005—or at least that´s the
date that Iranian officials cite. For instance, just two weeks ago a
Washington Post op-ed ("Iran: We do not want nuclear weapons") by
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi referred to the 2005
ruling: "Almost seven years ago, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei made
a binding commitment. He issued a religious edict—a fatwa—forbidding
the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons."
Well, that would seem to solve everything. If Iran doesn´t really
want the bomb, then the confrontation that so many fear will have
been averted. Indeed, if Khamenei has declared that a nuclear bomb is
un-Islamic, then the second round of negotiations between Iran and
the United States scheduled for Baghdad at the end of next month is
Unfortunately, no one can find the fatwa. And even if it did exist,
it would appear that it is nothing more than a ploy to sow confusion
among Iranian adversaries—especially the United States.
Last week the Jerusalem-based Middle East Media Research Institute
released a report arguing that Khamenei´s anti-nuclear fatwa doesn´t
exist. MEMRI staffers could find no evidence of any such fatwa on the
websites belonging to Khamenei—neither his personal site, nor the one
devoted exclusively to his fatwas. MEMRI concluded: "No such fatwa
ever existed or was ever published, and that media reports about it
are nothing more than a propaganda ruse on the part of the Iranian
regime apparatuses—in an attempt to deceive top U.S. administration
officials and the others mentioned above."
Others beg to differ with MEMRI´s findings, including Middle East
experts like Juan Cole. Last week, the University of Michigan
professor argued that Khamenei did issue the fatwa—even though Cole
couldn´t find the ruling or even notice of it on the Iranian News
Agency´s website. According to Cole, the official state news-agency
report has simply "gone into the deep web" and the fact that it isn´t
surfacing is "irrelevant."
Let´s say though, for the sake of argument, that such a fatwa does
exist. The fact that American officials seem to be basing U.S. policy
on the existence of a fatwa represents a much more serious problem
than the prospect of an Iranian bomb.
Cole, Clinton, and the U.S. State Department have missed the
essential point: If there is indeed a fatwa, why would Iran´s
commander-in-chief, Khamenei, violate an edict set down by the
country´s preeminent religious authority, who happens to be the very
same person? In other words, Khamenei is still moving toward
acquiring the bomb that Khamenei is alleged to have forbidden.
In their more lucid moments, American policymakers know that the
Iranians really are building a bomb. Otherwise, Washington would not
be leveling sanctions against the Islamic Republic for its nascent
nuclear weapons program. Nor would the U.S. intelligence community
devote so much attention and so many resources to tracking the
program, and we´d be able to reassure our regional allies, especially
Israel and Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, that Iran surely
can´t be building a bomb, because "Hey, they have a fatwa against it."
But the fact that Tehran is indeed moving ahead with the bomb
suggests that even if the fatwa does exist, it is simply intended as
an information operation meant to confuse the United States. That
American officials appear to be so easily taken in by this propaganda
campaign damages U.S. prestige. Our allies, even in the Muslim world,
wonder why the Obama Administration would bother taking seriously a
fatwa from a state sponsor of terror. After all, the regime has
issued numerous outrageous fatwas, including one that opined on the
permissibility of sex with chickens, and another that called for the
head of novelist Salman Rushdie.
But give the Iranians some credit. By cloaking their disinformation
campaign in exotic garb, the regime in Tehran targeted an American
weakness and hit home. Since 9/11, the United States´ engagement in
the Middle East has been scored with error after error, partly
because we have made Middle Eastern cultures seem more alien than
they really are in an attempt to be culturally sensitive.
Consider, for instance, the New York Times account of the anti-
nuclear fatwa: "[S]ome analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei´s denial
of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite
historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For
centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to
conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a
precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community."
Yes, taqiyya—or deceiving nonbelievers in order to protect yourself—
is a significant concept in Shia Islam, but so what? If, say, a Shia
burglar is caught with stolen goods in Brooklyn, and he tells the
NYPD that he actually just found the TV and toaster, is he practicing
taqiyya, or is he simply lying? When we´re dealing with Muslims and
the Middle East, Americans have proven virtually incapable of seeing
matters clearly. There´s always some exotic interpretation on offer
when the more mundane explanation seems politically incorrect.
In effect, this country´s intellectual and political elite—including
policymakers from the Bush and Obama Administrations—consistently
entertain Orientalist conceits. The Muslim world, in their view, is a
region of surpassing strangeness that can only be comprehended, and
even then only dimly, by familiarizing ourselves with alien concepts,
like taqiyya and fatwas.
Similarly, we seem incapable of grasping how Muslim leaders are
motivated by the sort of mundane desires that consume their Western
counterparts, like power and wealth. No, that´s banal, and
insufficiently Oriental. The Iranians don´t really care about
becoming the hegemon in the oil-rich Persian Gulf and lording it over
their Sunni Arab neighbors; all they´re really interested in is the
return of the 12th imam. After all, they´re so different from us;
they write fatwas!
The belief of U.S. policymakers that somehow the anti-nuclear fatwa
must play a role in formulating our Iran strategy should be cause for
radical reassessment. Over the last decade, the United States has
failed to win two wars in the Middle East, not because we did not
sufficiently understand the region, but because our almost comical
sensitivity to other cultures and societies suggests we have lost
faith in our own good sense. It is no wonder American policymakers
dread a conflict with Iran so much that they are looking for exit
strategies in a fatwa.
Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute and is the author
of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab
Civilizations (Doubleday, 2010).
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