Nuclear assurances: when a fatwa isn’t a fatwa

Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. What does its disregard mean for his ability to project authority to both international actors and domestic audiences?

Sasan Aghlani
8 March 2013

The importance of religious authority in Iranian decision-making is being discussed more and more in the context of Iran’s nuclear programme. The interest has partly stemmed from the notion that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa (religious edict) against the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons could prohibit the Islamic Republic from pursuing nuclear weapons, and whether this can be ‘operationalised’ in the Iranian parliament.

The fatwa was relayed to the UN General Assembly in 2010 by Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee. In late 2012, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi stated that Iran was prepared to turn the nuclear fatwa into secular legislation - in addition to implementing far more rigid transparency measures. Given how little is known about the exact ways that Iran’s system of velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) impacts its foreign and security policy agendas, any diplomatic efforts between the West and Iran that addresses this dimension is certainly welcome.

The fatwa provides Iran with a unique avenue to provide an assurance to the West over its peaceful nuclear intentions without undermining its sense of Islamic identity and national sovereignty. Bringing the fatwa into negotiations would reassure the Islamic Republic that it is nuclear non-proliferation and not regime change that the West seeks. In turn, operationalising the fatwa would communicate the normative commitment of Iran to peaceful nuclear technology to the West using a mechanism it understands - namely, parliamentary legislation. The West should build upon Khamenei’s fatwa in ways that would assure both parties that they are committed to non-proliferation based upon mutual respect, and paint a better picture of how religious considerations shape decision-making in Iran.

A number of scholars have cast doubt on the validity and sustainability of the Iranian Supreme Leader’s fatwa. Professor Ali Ansari, for example, argues that any oral ruling from Ayatollah Khamenei would be contested by other religious scholars in the country as a challenge to their own authority. Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi questions the commitment to the fatwa itself and warns against an "unhealthy complacency". Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji argue that although tradition weights oral and written legal opinions equally, the Supreme Leader could easily alter his position if the needs of the Islamic Republic change. There is therefore a growing argument that the fatwa needs to be written down in order to be valid.

At the heart of these criticisms seems to be confusion about what a fatwa is, and what a nuclear fatwa means in the Islamic Republic. A religious edict doesn’t have to be written down in order to be a fatwa, a point of agreement among all major Islamic schools of thought. The act of writing down a fatwa is merely a measure taken in cases where it has not been witnessed in order to reassure the masses that it has come from a religious authority. The fact that Ayatollah Khamenei has on numerous occasions reiterated to crowds of thousands of Iranians his designation of nuclear weapons proliferation and use as haram (impermissible) under Islamic law; that his ruling has been verified by other senior religious scholars; and that these instances have been televised internationally, is itself the fatwa.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa against the production and use of chemical weapons in retaliation against Saddam Hussein’s forces. Khomeini’s ruling is significant not just for being verbally relayed to the military through a series of interlocutors, it was also binding even at a juncture where mutual retaliation would have undoubtedly levelled the playing field between Iran and its chemically armed neighbour. Here, religious and ethical concerns remained of utmost importance to Iran’s defensive strategy – even in the face of chemical weapons attacks.

Even if the Islamic Republic does not operationalise the fatwa in secular legislation, the fact that it has been confirmed as coming from the vali-ye faqih (Guardian Jurist) ensures that it is binding over all Iranians. Under Iran’s political system, the fact that this fatwa has come from the Supreme Leader gives it precedence over any secular legislation passed in the Iranian parliament (majlis) and the rulings of other authorities. Outside of religious critique, challenging this fatwa politically with the intent to change Iran’s nuclear course would by implication mean challenging the country’s very system of governance. Furthermore, Ayatollah Khamenei’s seniority as a religious scholar is irrelevant to the scope of his fatwa in Iran. Under the Islamic Republic, people are expected to adhere to the vali-ye faqih as a source of emulation on political matters, not religious affairs. Although religious scholars often hold political office, the requirements of political and religious leaders in Iran are separate.

It should not be another missed opportunity, or an invitation to further mistrust.

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