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Iran’s Missing Nuclear Fatwa

Hillary Clinton’s State Department policy relies in part on Ayatollah Khamenei’s supposed anti-nuclear fatwa. But the edict may not even exist.

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boards her plane at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport earlier this month. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Has Iran’s Supreme Leader issued a fatwa prohibiting the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons? U.S. policymakers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seem to think so. They believe that such a fatwa, or religious ruling, may prove critical in negotiations to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions short of a bomb.

Given that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not only Iran’s foremost political leader but also the country’s foremost spiritual authority, a ruling of this sort would mark a major breakthrough. Such a possibility has certainly been on Clinton’s mind. Earlier this month, on the eve of the first round of negotiations in Istanbul between American and Iranian diplomats, she explained: If the fatwa “is indeed a statement of principle, of values, then it is a starting point for being operationalized, which means that it serves as the entryway into a negotiation as to how you demonstrate that it is indeed a sincere, authentic statement of conviction.”

The fatwa is believed to date back to 2005—or at least that’s the date that Iranian officials cite. For instance, just two weeks ago a Washington Post op-ed (“Iran: We do not want nuclear weapons”) by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi referred to the 2005 ruling: “Almost seven years ago, Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei made a binding commitment. He issued a religious edict—a fatwa—forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.”

Well, that would seem to solve everything. If Iran doesn’t really want the bomb, then the confrontation that so many fear will have been averted. Indeed, if Khamenei has declared that a nuclear bomb is un-Islamic, then the second round of negotiations between Iran and the United States scheduled for Baghdad at the end of next month is unnecessary.

Unfortunately, no one can find the fatwa. And even if it did exist, it would appear that it is nothing more than a ploy to sow confusion among Iranian adversaries—especially the United States.

Last week the Jerusalem-based Middle East Media Research Institute released a report arguing that Khamenei’s anti-nuclear fatwa doesn’t exist. MEMRI staffers could find no evidence of any such fatwa on the websites belonging to Khamenei—neither his personal site, nor the one devoted exclusively to his fatwas. MEMRI concluded: “No such fatwa ever existed or was ever published, and that media reports about it are nothing more than a propaganda ruse on the part of the Iranian regime apparatuses—in an attempt to deceive top U.S. administration officials and the others mentioned above.”

Others beg to differ with MEMRI’s findings, including Middle East experts like Juan Cole. Last week, the University of Michigan professor argued that Khamenei did issue the fatwa—even though Cole couldn’t find the ruling or even notice of it on the Iranian News Agency’s website. According to Cole, the official state news-agency report has simply “gone into the deep web” and the fact that it isn’t surfacing is “irrelevant.”

Let’s say though, for the sake of argument, that such a fatwa does exist. The fact that American officials seem to be basing U.S. policy on the existence of a fatwa represents a much more serious problem than the prospect of an Iranian bomb.

Cole, Clinton, and the U.S. State Department have missed the essential point: If there is indeed a fatwa, why would Iran’s commander-in-chief, Khamenei, violate an edict set down by the country’s preeminent religious authority, who happens to be the very same person? In other words, Khamenei is still moving toward acquiring the bomb that Khamenei is alleged to have forbidden.

In their more lucid moments, American policymakers know that the Iranians really are building a bomb. Otherwise, Washington would not be leveling sanctions against the Islamic Republic for its nascent nuclear weapons program. Nor would the U.S. intelligence community devote so much attention and so many resources to tracking the program, and we’d be able to reassure our regional allies, especially Israel and Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, that Iran surely can’t be building a bomb, because “Hey, they have a fatwa against it.”

But the fact that Tehran is indeed moving ahead with the bomb suggests that even if the fatwa does exist, it is simply intended as an information operation meant to confuse the United States. That American officials appear to be so easily taken in by this propaganda campaign damages U.S. prestige. Our allies, even in the Muslim world, wonder why the Obama Administration would bother taking seriously a fatwa from a state sponsor of terror. After all, the regime has issued numerous outrageous fatwas, including one that opined on the permissibility of sex with chickens, and another that called for the head of novelist Salman Rushdie.

But give the Iranians some credit. By cloaking their disinformation campaign in exotic garb, the regime in Tehran targeted an American weakness and hit home. Since 9/11, the United States’ engagement in the Middle East has been scored with error after error, partly because we have made Middle Eastern cultures seem more alien than they really are in an attempt to be culturally sensitive.

Consider, for instance, the New York Times account of the anti-nuclear fatwa: “[S]ome analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.”

Yes, taqiyya—or deceiving nonbelievers in order to protect yourself—is a significant concept in Shia Islam, but so what? If, say, a Shia burglar is caught with stolen goods in Brooklyn, and he tells the NYPD that he actually just found the TV and toaster, is he practicing taqiyya, or is he simply lying? When we’re dealing with Muslims and the Middle East, Americans have proven virtually incapable of seeing matters clearly. There’s always some exotic interpretation on offer when the more mundane explanation seems politically incorrect.

In effect, this country’s intellectual and political elite—including policymakers from the Bush and Obama Administrations—consistently entertain Orientalist conceits. The Muslim world, in their view, is a region of surpassing strangeness that can only be comprehended, and even then only dimly, by familiarizing ourselves with alien concepts, like taqiyya and fatwas.

Similarly, we seem incapable of grasping how Muslim leaders are motivated by the sort of mundane desires that consume their Western counterparts, like power and wealth. No, that’s banal, and insufficiently Oriental. The Iranians don’t really care about becoming the hegemon in the oil-rich Persian Gulf and lording it over their Sunni Arab neighbors; all they’re really interested in is the return of the 12th imam. After all, they’re so different from us; they write fatwas!

The belief of U.S. policymakers that somehow the anti-nuclear fatwa must play a role in formulating our Iran strategy should be cause for radical reassessment. Over the last decade, the United States has failed to win two wars in the Middle East, not because we did not sufficiently understand the region, but because our almost comical sensitivity to other cultures and societies suggests we have lost faith in our own good sense. It is no wonder American policymakers dread a conflict with Iran so much that they are looking for exit strategies in a fatwa.


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emunadate says:

Hard to believe that there is a  anti-nuclear fatwa.

emunadate says:

It is hard to believe anything that the Iranians say…

yevka says:

MEMRI can’t find the fatwa? Could this be because MEMRI (an Israeli media monitoring group) was itself founded by a war hawk by the name of Yigal Carmon? Hmmm

    xmontrealer says:

    First. there is nothing at a glance that paints Carmon as a “war hawk” other than by alledged association. I’m not that familiar with him, so if you have some actual pronouncements that can be credibly sourced that would indicate he has warlike intentions, by all means present them. But for argument’s sake, let’s take your assessment of him at face value, and assume he is a “war hawk”. If this were the case, wouldn’t people who want to correct his lack of  researching capabilities, such as Juam Cole, be able to find it?

    The existence of this fatwa doesn’t depend on Carmon’s ability to use google. Either it exists or it doesn’t. If you are arguing that it does, kindly produce it, and I will be happy to stand corrected, as would the authors of the article, I have no doubt.

    In the meantime, your sole tactic of shooting the messenger doesn’t really advance your argument.

      yevka says:

      It exists according to other credible journalistic sources I’ve read going back as far as 2005. But hey if you have a world war to wage don’t let me keep you okay?

        yevka says:

         Here’s one recent article. Please note that it’s from the arabic press and not the Iranian press. There are a near countless number of articles from various journals and newspapers both foreign and domestic which quote Iran’s supreme leader as being adamantly opposed to atomic weapons as they are to quote “a grave sin.”

          yevka says:

           The Weekly Standard’s editor in chief Lee Smith most not be very avid reader or researcher for that matter. Very shoddy work.

        xmontrealer says:

        Which you haven’t presented. I started out by presenting information that actually shows the opposite, which you haven’t disputed. The article clearly states that there are all kinds of references to this fatwa, but the object of the game is to actually produce the fatwa itself.

        Your attempt to smear my request for you to actually source your contentions as somehow advocating war against Iran is a cheap black or white game that can’t be supported by any statement I have made. I do not want to see needless deaths of either Israelis or Iranians, of whom I personally have some acquaintances.

        So let’s get back to you sourcing this fatwa, not just articles about it. I’ve already sorced an aricl about a fatwa sayig there’s a fatwa that approves of nuclear weapons use, yet you are not convinced.

        The ball’s in your court, and accusing me of arguing positions I don’t hold is also not advancing your argument.

    Raymond_in_DC says:

     Rather than look at the evidence, you simply resort to ad hominem name calling. I was at a lecture by one of MEMRI’s lead researchers who, even after documenting the anti-Semitic tropes evinced in Egyptian and Palestinian media, insisted during Q&A that he “strongly” supported the two-state solution – and he emphasized the “strongly” part. Doesn’t sound very hawkish to me.

julis123 says:

This sums up in a nutshell American foreign policy. Clinton bases her strategy on wishful thinking about something that doesn’t exist. Also, newsflash to the Sec of State, sometimes people lie. Finally don’t you think that there is some kind of prohibition in Moslem law about killing fellow Moslems? For some reason however the number of Moslems killed by fellow Moslem far out weighs the numbers killed by non-Moslems. So much for obeying Moslem laws.

    yevka says:

     I know, it’s crazy thinking. A Muslim state would never to my line of thinking attack another state (Israel) whose second largest religious demographic is Muslim. Netanyahu and his emotionally disturbed neo con brethren in the US want to have another war prefabbed for failure just like Iraq which was also fashioned on an outright lie. Not one weapon of mass destruction was found anywhere in Iraq. Not one. I wish they’d kill themselves instead of all the innocent Iranians and Israelis they’re poised to kill on faulty logic and no facts in photographs or other evidence that Iran is building anything else but nuclear energy to keep Iranian cities powered with a rich amount of electricity. This crazy threat of war has gone on for over 5 years of Israel issuing threats of dropping bombs on Tehran.

      julis123 says:

      Yevka–I don’t know how to break this to you but several of the people killed by Hizbollah missiles fired from Lebanon into Israel in 2006 were Israeli Moslems.

        yevka says:

        What has the Hezbollah hobgoblin have to do with this? I hate to break it to you but it has nothing to do with the issue under currently discussion. No cigar for you buddy.

      jw362 says:

      “A Muslim state would never to my line of thinking attack another state
      (Israel) whose second largest religious demographic is Muslim.”

       So what were Iran and Iraq up to a decade or so ago?  Were they ensuring that only non Muslims were slaughtered?   What about Iraq invading Kuwait?  Were all Muslims singled out and sent somewhere safe beforehand?  You’re full of  brown 29!

      mishamb says:

       “A Muslim state would never to my line of thinking attack another state
      (Israel) whose second largest religious demographic is Muslim.”

      Well that’s just a silly comment. Just look at the way Iran treats its Arab minority, all of whom are Muslims by the way — summary executions, land expropriation etc… Just Google Ahwazi Arabs. If the Iranians treat their own Arab citizens like this, you can be pretty sure they won’t care much about killing Israeli Arabs.

      The Iranians also don’t treat their Kurds, mostly Muslims, or Baluchis, Muslims, very well either. That’s why these groups are fighting the Iranian government. Hell, even the Azaris in Iran, mostly Muslim, want more autonomy, although not their own country like the Ahwazi, the Kurds and the Baluchis.

      And if this is what it’s like for non-Iranian Muslims, justthink how bad it must be for Baha’i, world headquarters in Israel and Jews, world headquarters well… you know where.

xmontrealer says:

While the details of fatwas regarding sex  with chickens may be morbidly fascinating, and more than a little disturbing, as far as nuclear fatwas go, I found a report on one that goes the other way fro The Telegraph from February 2006.

“Iranian fatwa approves use of nuclear weapons.
By Colin Freeman and Philip Sherwell in Washington
12:01AM GMT 19 Feb 2006

Iran’s hardline spiritual leaders have issued an unprecedented new fatwa, or holy order, sanctioning the use of atomic weapons against its enemies.In yet another sign of Teheran’s stiffening resolve on the nuclear issue, influential Muslim clerics have for the first time questioned the theocracy’s traditional stance that Sharia law forbade the use of nuclear weapons.One senior mullah has now said it is “only natural” to have nuclear bombs as a “countermeasure” against other nuclear powers, thought to be a reference to America and Israel.The pronouncement is particularly worrying because it has come from Mohsen Gharavian, a disciple of the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, who is widely regarded as the cleric closest to Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”

    yevka says:

     That racist crack about chicken sex was totally uncalled for. I question the veracity of your post based on your obvious racist and anti-Muslim disdain. I’ve seen that slur around a lot on other blogs and it really doesn’t help one’s argument. It certainly isn’t very enlightened.

      xmontrealer says:

      The remark about “chicken sex” is hardly racist. It was clearly referenced and sourced in the article. I have no “anti-Muslim disdain”, but I  will gladly concede that I am not a big fan of Ayatollah Khomeini, who had a lot a lot to say about romantic encounters with various barnyard animals in his 1961 classic A Clarfication of Questions,

      I’ll be happy to agree that this sort of discussion isn’t particularly enlightened, but mentioning it is not a slur. The existence of the document in question is not an issue, nor is its author.

      Which brings us back to the issue at hand, which you seem hell-bent on avoiding. You mention an article, but there wasn’t a link to it that I could see, but the article above mentions many journalistic references to it, but not to the fatwa itself.

      I can produce many credible journalistic references to the Land of Oz, but that doesn’t make it real. So we’re still waiting.

      In our exchange this afternoon,  you have accused me of being a war-monger and a racist for quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, Yigal Carmon of being a war hawk  and Lee Smith of  being a less than “avid” reader and researcher, and of “shoddy” work.

      So you have done a lot of name calling and finger pointing, but you have neither refuted, or even attempted to refute, my sourced contention that there is a fatwa in favour of nuclear weapons, or produced an actual link to the fatwa that is questioned in the article.

      Is that your idea of an argument? 

        yevka says:

         My idea of a rational argument is not to preamble it with remarks about chicken sex, but you may beg to differ.

          xmontrealer says:

          As I said, my interest in amorous rendez-vous with farm animals is strictly based on the sourced ravings of Ayatollah Khomeini. I have asked you 3 times to address the issue of sourcing the fatwa discussed in the article, and to provide some rebuttal to my assertion that there is actually is a fatwa condoning nuclear weapons usage.

          Instead you link to a article about Netanyahu, which was interesting reading, by the way, but irrelevant to this present issue.

          While I risk totally losing you with a baseball analogy,  the only reasonable conclusion is that with these 3 strikes, you’re out (of any rational arguments).

          yevka says:

           Well scratch on the chicken coop a forth time and cluck a little and maybe I can treat your argument with some degree of  seriousness but my word to you is don’t hold your breath.

          xmontrealer says:

          Advice taken. Consider my breath not held, your arguments unsupported, and mine unanswered.

          I guess you were too “chicken”.

          Sorry, I couldn’t resist that.

I am totally with the Iranians who of, course, already understand with some confidence that President Obama is entirely a “Neville Chamberlain” with no serious intention of ever using force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Perhaps most Americans miss this key point because they are way too distracted by continuing economic woes and empty theatrics like the killing of Osama bin Laden. What’s the rule for matters of national security? Do we rely on a fatwa that nobody has seen? Normal methodology for “national security” matters suggests that there is no such fatwa until the contrary is proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In this connection, the standard for national security is tougher than that for journalism, for which sufficient is the standard of “on the balance of the probabilities.” And, let’s get real about the global analysis on this one. There is no way that China and Russia are really going to help maintain a Middle East in which the USA continues to be the paramount power. Therefore, China and Russia will gladly help Iran provide President Obama with a worthless scrap of paper like the one Chamberlain held out upon his return from the September 1938 Munich meeting with Hitler and Mussolini. President Obama may too be able to claim “peace in our time.” However, does anybody seriously believe that he will get an ironclad, verifiable agreement that would really prevent the Iranians from becoming a State with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them? The wonder is that “front line” countries like Germany, France and the UK seem to be putting up with the chronic dissimulation and deceit of the Obama administration which has seriatim betrayed friends and allies. David Cameron has already recognized that Iranian nuclear weapons would be a direct threat to the UK. As for Israel, can you imagine that there could be a international negotiation with respect to Iran’s nuclear weapons that would omit Israel’s nuclear weapons from the equation? President Obama’s June 4, 2009 Cairo speech already refers to “all countries in the region” with respect to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, when it comes to screwing Israel, President Obama has more up his sleeve than simply some “West Bank” settlement freezes. With respect to Iran’s race to nuclear weapons, it is wrong to think that the only short-term options are tougher sanctions, a military strike or containment. In the short-run, there’s also the easy option of some deceptive diplomatic “wall paper” to cover up the wholesale USA retreat from the Middle East, which is the real, continuing policy of President Obama. And this is, for sure, part of his “outreach to the Muslim world,” just as Chamberlain held his hand out to Hitler’s Germany. See my November 2009 posting entitled “Obama: Walking on Israel in Chamberlain’s Shoes?” at

    yevka says:

     The killing of Osama was not a case of “empty theatrics” it was an  accomplishment, one which George W Bush never accomplished in 7 long years of open opportunity and that he never got even close to accomplishing. Bush did accomplish a war of disastrous ruin in attacking Iraq which was already under a policy of containment and was no threat to anybody and clearly had no nuclear weapons. Netanyahu is fully prepared to drag any American presidenthe can who is gullible enough to start another war where it is once again highly doubtful that the country under scrutiny is working towards WMDs and clearly in the present tense does not possess them. I think the arena of showmanship of empty theatrics and threats is coming solely from Israel. That is of course to point to two showmen – Binyamin Netanyhu and Ehud Barak.

yevka says:

Excellent analysis of what Binyamin Netanyahu is scheming at as he attempts to keep his frayed coalition government together and win the next Israeli election and Iran is at the center of his cynical gamesmanship.

bbj121 says:

This is a traditional propaganda piece. The writer defines his critics’ thinking, motives and opinions and then sets out to point out their stupidity. Unfortunately, it appears that your readers do not see through this ploy. The comments here indicate that your readers are arguing with Smith’s conclusions as if they were logically deduced from facts rather than based on mere assertions.

I am sorry it is in German only but the renown German security expert Hans Rühle just wrote in “Die Welt” that also the alleged fatwa by Khomeini on this issue never existed and that there are many hints that actually already Khomeini started the Nuclear bomb project:

Marina Sapir says:

The fact that no such fatwa with Khamenei  signature and exact wording was ever published means that he can always deny its existence, or he can claim that he was misunderstood. At an appropriate time, he may issue a clarification saying that having nuclear weapons is not recommended, unless they are developed and used under his direct guidance.  The same as   with sex with chickens.

Obama may not believe in the fatwa, but he wants us to believe it. He uses Iranian lie to deceive us. 

Khunianb says:

Like most Zionists, the author has selected reading ability.  Juan Cole provides plenty of sources confirming the fatwa, including a US government transcript!!
The only reason that the US government is pushing sanctions is because our politicians are slaves to AIPAC and the Israel First lobby.

The NIE and Israeli intelligence sources agree that there is no weapons program.  Zionists just want to weaken all their neighbors (A Clean Break) so that they can continue to treat Palestinians badly.


it is the fear of the unknown that has made the us and some allies to be intentionally naive   into accepting a fatwa to justify their inaction. . . .any move at both end there’s so much high price to pay.  and to succumb and appear coward is vile thing to any culture. there’s  the need for a veil, to appear innocent of the coming explicit.

The supposed fatwa isn’t worth the paper its written on Shia-Muslims practice al-taqqiya.


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Iran’s Missing Nuclear Fatwa

Hillary Clinton’s State Department policy relies in part on Ayatollah Khamenei’s supposed anti-nuclear fatwa. But the edict may not even exist.

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