Iran's Gray Area on Nuclear Arms

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

TEHRAN -- Iranian officials often assert the peaceful intent of their nuclear program by insisting that the religious law that governs their country expressly prohibits weapons of mass destruction.

A Turkish diplomat, describing a visit in May by the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said that Larijani made the religious roots of the proscription clear. "I was in the meeting," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He said there is even a fatwa , a religious ruling, since the time of Khomeini, that Iran will not produce any nuclear weapons."

Yet interviews with a range of clerics and other students of Islamic teachings indicate that while Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini indeed barred Iranian forces from unconventional weapons during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, the religious underpinning for such a ban is regarded as less than absolute, with ample justification available in scriptures for almost any course except first use.

"This question is ambiguous," said Grand Ayatollah Jalalodine Taheri, who was a leading figure in the Iranian government before becoming a sharp critic. Taheri, 80, said during an interview at his bedside in the central Iranian city of Isfahan that "taking weapons of mass destruction as a whole, I'm against it." But he added that religious texts might offer avenues that would allow stockpiling such weapons in the name of deterrence or self-defense.

"It's not clear," Taheri said.

Those arguing for the loopholes include clerics closely identified with the country's most hard-line conservatives, the most ardent defenders of Iran's theocratic system.

"Producing and using WMD is forbidden, just as producing deadly poison or harmful drugs," said Mohsen Gharavian, who teaches Islamic philosophy in the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran. "I think there is no ambiguity here. . . . I have not seen any other type of interpretation" among religious scholars.

"But," he continued, "I have got to add something to this: If any other nation has produced this WMD and has used it against a second nation, the second nation in the name of defending itself has the right to have it and to use WMD."

Gharavian serves as spokesman for Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, an archconservative who strongly supports President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is suspected of providing religious justification for killings allegedly carried out by Iranian intelligence agents in the late 1990s. Gharavian spoke in an hour-long interview at the Imam Khomeini Institute, which has produced tens of thousands of clerics under Mesbah-Yazdi's tutelage. A number are expected to seek election this fall to the Assembly of Experts, the one body in Iran's theocratic system with the power to remove the supreme leader, the cleric who has ultimate authority.

"About nuclear weapons, there is this principle of all or none," Gharavian said. "If a nation arms itself with such weapons, it is quite logical for other nations to think of defending themselves against these kinds of weapons.

"I believe this is the logic of Islamic morals," Gharavian said, professing himself "100 percent sure" that Khomeini and Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "based on Islamic principles, have the same logic: Islam does not allow anyone to initiate harming a human being."

The same bedrock view and the same caveat about self-defense were offered by an influential cleric aligned with Iran's reformers, members of the relatively liberal movement recently sidelined by hard-line conservatives.

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