“Iran regards utilizing nuclear weapons as forbidden in Islam,” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once said. On another occasion, he declared: “The Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its fundamental religious and legal beliefs, would never resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
In 2008 a WorldPublicOpinion.org poll revealed that, while 81% of Iranians favored nuclear energy, 58% agreed with the Supreme Leader’s statement, while only 23% supported a nuclear-weapons program. In fact 63% expressed approval that Iran was still party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Presumably, those polled responded truthfully. But, in light of the International Atomic Energy Agency report presenting more evidence that Iran is acquiring the know-how and technology to build nuclear weapons, who — left or right — really believes the Supreme Leader’s avowals?
Are such statements by the Supreme Leader bald-faced lies? Or is he relying on an obscure Islamic doctrinal point to justify lying to the enemy — not to mention justifying killing millions of them?
In 2003, Robert Collier of the San Francisco Chronicle attempted to divine the truth.
Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, one of the highest-ranking clerics in Iran, said in an interview: “There is complete consensus on this issue. It is self-evident in Islam that it is prohibited to have nuclear bombs. It is eternal law, because the basic function of these weapons is to kill innocent people.”
Some diplomats privately dismiss such statements, pointing to alleged Iranian government support for such organizations as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups whose suicide bombings have killed hundreds of innocent civilians. … Asked whether the ayatollahs could simply rip up their fatwa one day and issue a new ruling blessing the development of nuclear weapons, [Fazal Miboudi, a mullah who is professor of political science at Mofid University in Qom] said any reversal of such a high-profile issue would require years of awkward theological maneuvering.
In fact, though, an explanation may actually exist for how the Supreme Leader could declare that nuclear weapons are forbidden by Islam while green-lighting their development. In June of this year, Tehran held its second international conference on nuclear disarmament. Despite hosting delegates from 40 nations, the United Nations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it was, for the most part, scoffed at by the West. But, at Asia Times Online, Kaveh Afrasiabi wrote:
What seems more absurd to many is the simple fact that with the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads still in existence … so little attention has been placed in the West on practical mechanisms to achieve the lofty objective of a “world without nuclear weapons”. [The] gathering helped serve a purpose in terms of what [Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar] Salehi has described as cultivating a “popular disarmament culture”.
As you can see, Iran was attempting to put the onus of nonproliferation back on the West for failing to take substantive disarmament measures. Afrasiabi continued.
… the Tehran conference gave the Iranian hosts an opportunity to throw the limelight on Israel’s clandestine nuclear arsenal, its refusal to join the NPT and its lack of support for a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone — an idea fully endorsed by Iran. [Also] the Tehran conference was important in further integrating Iran in the global disarmament movement. [Emphasis added.]
No doubt, Iran and disarmament are two words you never expected to see in the same sentence. Afrasiabi explained.
Following this line of thought, the outlines of Iran’s ”borderline” nuclear policy, which allows Tehran to insert itself in the global “nuclear game” and thus exert pressure on the nuclear haves to move toward disarmament and avoid proliferation activities, can be understood.
Afrasiabi is justifying (rationalizing) Iran’s flirtation with nuclear-weapons (“‘borderline’ nuclear policy”) as a means to gain “credibility” with the West. Usually, when used in a nuclear-weapons context, the word credibility refers to a perceived need for the West, especially the United States, to initiate substantive disarmament measures to convince states aspiring to nuclear weapons that they don’t need them. Afrasiabi elaborated.
Without the potential capability as a proto-nuclear power, Iran … will be ignored as totally irrelevant. In other words, the … value, for the sake of disarmament objectives, of Iran’s latent nuclear potential and/or threat has completely bypassed Western pundits who … often reduce Iran’s nuclear ambitions to a mere issue of national security.
In other words, Afrasiabi is asserting that Iran is developing the capacity to build nuclear weapons in hopes that nuclear-weapons states will view it as a genuine player on the international stage. It can then institute its hitherto hidden agenda: disarmament. In Afrasiabi’s words, Iran will be “able to play an increasingly vocal role in holding those powers back from the flight of responsibility vis-a-vis their NPT obligations to disarm.”
More and more Afrasiabi resembles an Iranian-American version of North Korea mouthpiece Kim Myong Chol, who writes articles like this — North Korea nears age of affluence — for Asia Times Online. In any event, he thinks he’s demonstrated how the Supreme Leader can be pro and con nuclear weapons at the same time.
Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.