Photo Credit: "Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran's Proliferation Strategy"
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivering a speech on November 8, 2006, where he stated that his country would continue to acquire nuclear technology and challenge “Western fabrications.”
On November 8, 2006, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2006: proclaiming that his country would continue to acquire nuclear technology and challenge “Western fabrications.”

The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has recently issued a fatwa declaring that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are all “haram” (prohibited in Islam).

According to the Iranian news agency Mehr, Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani said on Wednesday that “the fatwa that the Supreme Leader has issued is the best guarantee that Iran will never seek to produce nuclear weapons.”

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In their book “Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy,” published September 2011 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a think tank often described as being pro-Israel), Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji discuss the vital role religion plays in every aspect of Iranian politics, and the realistic prospects that a fatwa might influence nuclear policy.

The 46 Page book can be downloaded free in PDF format here.

Michael Eisenstadt’s essay examines the regime’s doctrine of expediency, which has guided Iranian decision making since the mid-to-late 1980s. He highlights the growing tension between this doctrine, which has generally led the Islamic Republic to act in a circumspect manner while pursuing an anti–status quo foreign policy, and the increasingly influential but less flexible doctrines of resistance (embraced by a new generation of hardline Iranian politicians) and politicized messianic Shia Islam (embraced by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad and some of his supporters) as applied to Iranian behavior and nuclear decision making.

Mehdi Khalaji’s essay looks at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa proscribing the development, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons, against the background of traditional Islamic attitudes toward weapons of mass destruction and Shiite attitudes toward dissimulation and deception, and considers how these factors have been dealt with by the Expediency Council, which is responsible for advising the Supreme Leader on matters of national policy and resolving legislative issues. The author demonstrates how decisions in the Islamic Republic on these and other matters are grounded not in Islamic law but rather in the regime’s doctrine of expediency, as interpreted by the Supreme Leader.

Both essays conclude that if the Islamic Republic’s leaders believe that developing, stockpiling, or using nuclear weapons, is in its interests, then religious considerations will not constrain these actions. Past proclamations about the matter, like all fatwas issued by Shiite clerics, can be revised under new circumstances. And while the Islamic Republic has repeatedly put the interests of the regime ahead of religious principles, the growing role played by the doctrines of resistance and politicized messianic Shia Islam may well  increase the propensity of decision makers to act in an assertive manner. Such assertiveness holds the attendant potential for miscalculation and overreach, thereby complicating efforts by the United States and its partners to deter and contain a nuclear Iran.

The following excerpt from Eisenstadt’s essay is worth contemplating:

It is not clear how the acquisition of nuclear weapons might alter the logic underpinning Iranian decision making. It would seem that the doctrine of expediency would constrain reckless acts that could prompt nuclear retaliation against the Islamic Republic. After all, Iran’s leadership and the regime’s brand of revolutionary Islam will not survive if the Islamic Republic does not survive.

However, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who now heads the Expediency Council, stated in a December 2001 speech:

If one day the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.

Whether Rafsanjani was engaging in idle talk or expressing a reasoned opinion is unclear. Either way, the fact that a pragmatic conservative politician responsible for advising the Supreme Leader on the regime’s expediency can make such a statement raises questions about the regime’s sobriety when it comes to nuclear weapons and Israel.

Moreover, the Islamic Republic’s efforts in recent years to inculcate a culture of resistance (moqavemat) that pushes boundaries and does not yield on matters of principle, along with an upsurge in Mahdist (messianic) devotion in some regime circles, raises additional concerns that Iranian decision makers might be more willing to accept risk, and less inclined to act with prudence and caution, than in the past.

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