Decades of antagonistic and belligerent rhetoric, continue to dominate the psyche in both Iran and the United States. In recent months, hardliners on both sides have escalated the rhetoric, arguing that a deal would be disastrous, dismissing the mainstream, more moderate discourse on the other side. Understanding the discourse is key in allowing both sides to manage expectations and build trust, as steps are taken toward the conclusion of a comprehensive deal in the next few months.
A key and stable pillar of Iran’s nuclear discourse in the past decade lies in its religious component. In Iran, supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons is presented as all-important. In the West, some believe the fatwa to be real and have an impact, while others dismiss it as reversible and void of any concrete policy impact.
In June 2014, the Iranian Foreign Ministry organized the “Eighth International Conference on Imam Khomeini’s Foreign Policy.” The theme of this year’s installment was the timely, “Islam and the Nonproliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD). The conference provides an interesting insight into the religious discussion on WMD in the Islamic Republic. The decision to hold such a conference during the ongoing talks with the P5+1 is also significant.
During the conference, clerics and politicians reiterated Khamenei’s prohibition on the production, stockpiling, and use of WMD. This categorical prohibition was put in religious terms by Ayatollah Fazel-Lankarani, who has joined the growing circle of Iranian clerics voicing his views on the legal status of WMD in Shia Islam. Like other clerics, he also argues that WMD are prohibited by “reason and Islamic law.” In Shia jurisprudence, reason (aql) means the “intellect,” it is the equivalent of the Greek notion of nous. It is the human ability to distinguish between “good and evil.” The shari’a by contrast is the divine law, which is found in the Holy Text, the Qur’an and, complemented by the teachings of the Prophet, his daughter, Fatima, and the twelve Imams, all considered as infallible by Shias, and the consensus of jurists on a specific ruling (‘ijma). Despite all the attention paid to fatwas in the past few decades in the West, a fatwa is not a source of Islamic law. A fatwa is a religious decree, issued by a mujtahid or Shia jurist, on a specific topic. A fatwa is formulated as a response to a question posed by believers. Unlike what has been claimed by certain scholars, it does not have to be written.
The gist of the religious discussion around WMD in Shia Islam is as follows: means and methods of warfare have to respect both the sanctity of human life and the environment. This includes the distinction between combatants and noncombatants and the proportionality of the means and methods employed during warfare. If these principles sound familiar, it’s because they are also key notions of just war thinking in the West and international humanitarian law. During his discussion, Lankarani noted that the consequences of WMD are not limited but rather transcend time and space and their impact can be felt by the future generations. Proliferation, then, threatens international security and Muslims have to refrain from acquiring WMD, even to protect Islam itself.
Based on these principles, Iranian officials and clerics argue that Tehran, led by the regime’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, chose not to include WMD in its defense doctrine, even in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), during which Baghdad used chemical weapons against Iran and its own civilian populations. In Tehran, I challenged some former officials and clerics who had been in Khomeini’s immediate circle whether the religious reasoning on WMD was, in effect, a key driver behind the decision not to consider chemical weapons as a viable option in the emerging regime’s defense doctrine. They all maintained that while a number of officials at the time had requested Khomeini to reconsider his position on WMD, the leader of the revolution had maintained that they were against the faith, and Iran would refrain from including them in its defense doctrine.
The precedent set by the Islamic Republic in its history is, then, one of non-use of WMD. Iranian officials highlight that this is even in light of open threats to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities by Israel and the United States. They argue that the fact that the supreme leader chose to issue the “nuclear fatwa” amidst these threats is evidence of Iran’s commitment to these Shia principles.
Of course, the implementation of Islamic law by the Islamic law has been controversial throughout its 35-year history. Even the very notion of an Islamic government was rejected by some of the most prominent Iranian Shia clerics in the 1970s, many of who supported the Shah’s reign. Most of these clerics were later assassinated, exiled, or put under house arrest. They were replaced by what some scholars have called “religio-politicians,” revolutionaries without the religious authority of the jurists of the pre-revolutionary era. Later, following the establishment of the Islamic Republic, other clerics, including those who played an active role in its creation began to question its legitimacy and implementation of the shari’a. Then, why should the international community trust Iran’s declaratory policy on WMD?
First, the consensus around the prohibition of WMD in Shia jurisprudence seems to transcend politics in religious circles. Virtually all the clerics who have taken a stance on the matter, regardless of their political affiliation, have reiterated the supreme leader’s position that WMD are inherently in conflict with the teachings of Islam. Even exiled clerics who are very vocally opposed to the regime and do not consider Ayatollah Khamenei as a legitimate Shia marja’ or jurist have told me they believe his assessment of WMD is correct.
Second, regardless of actual role of religion in Iranian policymaking, it is important to highlight its discoursal value. As noted above, Iran has reiterated a number of times at the highest levels that WMD are prohibited by the faith and do not play a role in Iran’s defense doctrine. Khamenei has noted this time and time again in his Friday prayer speeches and Tehran has communicated it to the International Atomic Energy Agency. An overt reversal of this position would come at a great political cost for the regime, which would not only be seen as crossing its own lines and violating what it claims to regard as the divine Law, but also as lying. This, in turn, would mean that Tehran would lose all legitimacy. In recent years, Western scholars and pundits have thrown around the notion of taqiyya, as a potential justification for what they believe to be Iran’s great lie. However, it is important to note that taqqiya is not only a personal matter and is only allowed if a person faces death due to his/her religious beliefs. What is more, taqqiya is not allowed for religious matters, and a prominent Iranian cleric has told me that according to Khomeini, religious figures are not allowed to practice taqqiya.
Therefore, whether one views Islam as a real driver in policymaking or not is a separate affair from the value of Iran’s religious nuclear narrative as a self-imposed restricting factor.
Third, Iran’s religious narrative also serves to undermine international law and institutions. President Rouhani stated, as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, that the Supreme Leader’s fatwa is more important to Iran than the NPT. Tehran’s reliance on its religious legal framework has served to tell the international community that it is bound by a “superior” legal framework. This stems from Iran’s distrust of international law and institutions, which has its origins in the Iran-Iraq War, where the international community failed to effectively condemn Iraq’s “war of aggression” and use of chemical weapons against Iran. But this also serves to show that Iran is not only bound, as it has stated a number of times, by its international obligations, but what it considers as the highest morality. By doing so, Iran signals that it is seeking to reassure the international community and tries to use its faith as a confidence building measure.