“Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.”

— President Obama, statement regarding conversation with President Rouhani, Sept. 27, 2013

“The supreme leader of Iran has said that there is a fatwa to development of a nuclear weapon.”

— Senior administration official, background briefing, Nov. 24, 2013

“So I close by saying to all of you that the singular objective that brought us to Geneva remains our singular objective as we leave Geneva, and that is to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. In that singular object, we are resolute. Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif emphasized that they don’t intend to do this, and the supreme leader has indicated there is a fatwa, which forbids them to do this.”

— Secretary of State John F. Kerry, remarks to the media, Geneva, Nov. 24, 2013

As part of the administration’s diplomacy with Iran, senior officials have claimed that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons. A fatwa is a ruling by a religious authority, often with judicial implications. As Khamenei is the ultimate authority in Iran, his statements would seem to carry significant weight.

But there is a fine line between a fatwa and mere statements made by the leader to the media. As Abbas Milani of Stanford University put it, “The issue of the fatwa is complicated. Whether it actually exists and even whether Mr. Khamenei is entitled to issue fatwas and finally how changeable are fatwas are all contested matters.”

It may not even matter if the fatwa exists. Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Khamenei at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that it appears that Obama is referencing the fatwa in order to give the Iranians an easier route to compromise — because of their religious beliefs, not because of U.S.-led sanctions.

“I don’t think Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa reassures Obama that Iran doesn’t seek a nuclear weapons capability,” Sadjadpour said. “But if he can offer Khamenei a graceful way to stand down, that’s in his interests.”

With that in mind, let’s explore what is known about the alleged fatwa.

The Facts

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the Iranian government was the best source for information. But she added: “Many Iranian officials have spoken of the fatwa publicly, and their comments are publicly available. There are various descriptions of it in the public domain. And importantly, the Iranians have also referenced the fatwa in our negotiations.”

Indeed, the Iranian government’s slick new Web site on its nuclear program, www.nuclearenergy.ir, includes an entire section on the nuclear fatwa.

The Iranian Web site appears to trace the roots of Khamenei’s fatwa, which it claims was first issued in 2003, to a fatwa uttered by his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, concerning a ban on the production and use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.

But there’s one problem: Iran admitted to chemical weapons production after it ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997, and U.S. intelligence agencies suspected Iran of maintaining a chemical weapons stockpile at least until 2003. So what does it say if the origin of the supposed fatwa is based on an apparently misleading statement?

[Update: Gareth Porter, in a rebuttal to this column, says that Iran only said that it had “chemical weapons capability, while maintaining the policy not to resort to these weapons." He argues that the distinction between production and capability had been lost through years of inaccurate reporting. He is certainly correct we should have linked to an original document, but we could not find one, and are pleased to do so now. One of the Wikileaks cables included a statement from Iran to the United States in 2004 that chemical weapons agents were produced but not weaponized.]

Khamenei also has referred to Iran not having produced chemical weapons. Here is an excerpt from a March 2003 speech, as translated from the Persian by Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

“Nuclear technology is different than producing nuclear bomb. Nuclear technology is considered to be a scientific progress in a field that has lots of benefits. Those who want nuclear bomb can pursue that field and get the bomb. We do not want bomb. We are even against chemical weapons. Even when Iraq attacked us by chemical weapons, we did not produce chemical weapons.”

Khalaji, who in 2011 collaborated with Michael Eisenstadt on an in-depth look at the supposed fatwa, notes that on many occasions, Khomeini abruptly shifted course, despite a previously issued ruling. Khalaji says this is quite common among senior Shiite religious figures. So Khomeini said the modern tax system in Iran was against Islam — until he came to power and said such laws should be obeyed. He also was against women’s suffrage when the shah was in power — and then after the revolution urged women to vote. He was also against the eating of sturgeon — until he was for it.

Here's what's in the Iran nuclear deal, explained in 60 seconds.

Oddly, the Iranian Web site does not provide the text of the original fatwa — and then mostly cites Western news reports as evidence that Khamenei has reiterated it on several occasions. The fatwa does not appear to be written, but in the Shiite tradition equal weight is given to oral and written opinions.

The most definitive written account of the fatwa appears in a statement that an Iranian official read at an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005: “The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued the fatwa that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons.”

But Khalaji also documents an interesting evolution in Khamenei’s statements over time. Whereas in 2005 Khamenei said that the “production of an atomic bomb is not on our agenda,” more recent statements have focused on use of nuclear weapons, often dropping references to the “development” of such weapons.

There is also an issue of translation, often a problem when dealing with Iran. One English language account has Khamenei saying this in 2012:

“We do not pursue to build nuclear weapons. In reality, having nuclear weapons is not to our benefit. From the viewpoint of ideology, theory, and the Islamic jurisprudence, we consider this as forbidden and proliferation of nuclear weapons as a wrong decision. We consider the use of such weapons a great sin while stockpiling it is not only pointless, but also harmful and hazardous. Therefore, we will never try to acquire such weapons.” 

But Khalaji looked up the actual speech, as displayed in Persian on Khamenei’s official Web site, and rendered his own translation. There’s quite a difference:

“In fact, nuclear weapon is not economically useful for us. Furthermore, intellectually, theoretically and juridically [from Sharia point of view] we consider it wrong and consider this action wrong. We believe using such weapons are a great sin and stockpiling them are futile and harmful and dangerous and never go after it. They [big powers] know this too but they pressure on this point in order to stop this action [the  nuclear program].”

The Pinocchio Test

Just about every Alfred Hitchcock thriller had what he called a “MacGuffin” — a plot device that gets the action going but is unimportant to the overall story. The Iranian fatwa thus appears to be a diplomatic MacGuffin — something that gives the Americans a reason to begin to trust the Iranians and the Iranians a reason to make a deal. No one knows how this story will end, but just as in the movies, the fatwa likely will not be critical to the outcome.

Even if one believes the fatwa exists — and will not later be reversed — it clearly appears to have evolved over time. U.S. officials should be careful about saying the fatwa prohibits the development of nuclear weapons, as that is not especially clear anymore. The administration’s statements at this point do not quite rise to the level of  earning Pinocchios, but we will keep an eye on this issue.

Verdict Pending

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Not the Whole Story
“Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.”
in a statement regarding conversation with President Rouhani
Friday, September 27, 2013