Iran's Gray Area on Nuclear Arms
Despite Official Assertions That Islam Requires a Ban, Some Clerics See Justification

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.

"In the time of the prophet, we didn't have nuclear bombs, so there's not a verse about it in the Koran," said Mohsen Kadivar, who like Gharavian is a middle-ranking cleric. "But we have some verses which say we can't kill anyone who hasn't committed a crime. It's very, very clear."

The faith does accept the concept of retaliation, however, so long as it stops short of injuring innocents. Kadivar said that proviso appears to proscribe actual use of weapons of mass destruction, as would scriptures warning against damaging the environment.

But none of that necessarily bars a government from stockpiling such weapons, the clerics say.

"From all I can see, it's not forbidden, but it's hard to say it's allowed. In jurisprudence these terms are different," Kadivar said. "If your enemies have these bombs, it's not forbidden to have them.

"Don't forget that Israel has these bombs," he added, raising a finger. "It's outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Iranian scholars who argue against nuclear weapons point out that these questions are hardly abstract in Iran. The newly minted government faced severe, real-life tests after Saddam Hussein's troops invaded Iran in 1980. The Iraqi forces used chemical weapons on the battlefield; two decades later, badly wounded survivors still populate hospital wards in Iran.

When Iraq also launched rocket attacks on Tehran and other metropolitan areas, pressure for Tehran to retaliate was intense.

"In the eight-year war with Iraq, this was a very hot debate among all the Islamic teachers, because Iranian cities were being bombarded," said Kazem Mosavi Bojnoordi, who sat on the defense committee of Iran's parliament during part of the war. "The conclusion was that it's not allowed. Never during those eight years do we have one example of Iran bombarding cities."

Bojnoordi, now chief editor of Iran's Center for the Great Islamic Encyclopedia, recalled that after the first salvos from Iraq, a senior Iranian commander declared, "Now we will flatten Baghdad." The comment brought an immediate rebuke from Khomeini, whose fatwa closed the matter for the balance of the war.

"According to Islamic teachings, there's the principle that the goals never justify the means," said Bojnoordi, whose father was a grand ayatollah. "It has not been supported in Islam that you can do whatever you want to defend yourself. You are not allowed to gather weapons that are not allowed by Islam, even against your enemies.''

Senior Iranian officials insist their goal is only electrical power, saving their substantial petroleum deposits to export. Leaders also emphasize the role of pride and technological achievement, which inside Iran conveys the impression of economic development that has largely eluded a population that has grown poorer since the 1979 revolution.

"I believe that by getting high tech we will be getting development," Bojnoordi said. "If we improve the standard of living, that will unite the people, and that will bring security."

Said Kadivar: "I hope that science in my country is so progressive! I hope it's true. Every Iranian wants to have this energy. Every party. The difficulty is we don't have a democratic regime. So we should try to democratize."

If Iran is indeed working to produce nuclear weapons, experts say the program would surely be entrusted to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Formed in 1979 by clerics who did not trust Iran's existing army, the Revolutionary Guards have grown into a major force in Iran's economy and political offices. Their insignia, one analyst noted, includes a passage from the Koran that reads, "Prepare any strength you can muster against them, and any cavalry with which you can overawe God's enemy and your own enemy as well, plus others besides them whom you do not know."

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