Report distorts Iran's nuclear
fatwa By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The Barack Obama
administration's new interest in the 2004
religious verdict, or fatwa, by Iran's
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banning the
possession of nuclear weapons, long dismissed by
national security officials, has prompted the New
York Times to review the significance of the
fatwa for the first time in several years.
Senior Obama administration officials have
decided to cite the fatwa as an Iranian
claim to be tested in negotiations, posing a new
challenge to the news media to report accurately
on the background to the issue. But the April 13
New York Times article by James Risen rehashed old
arguments by Iran's adversaries and even added
some new ones.
Former Obama White House
Iran policy coordinator Dennis B Ross, known for
his close ties with Israel and hardline views on
Iran, was quoted as suggesting that Khamenei may
committed to nuclear
weapons after all. But Ross implies that the
reason is United States sanctions and perhaps the
threat of war rather than that the 2004
fatwa was a genuine expression of policy.
The Times report repeated a familiar
allegation, attributed to unnamed "analysts", that
the fatwa is merely a conscious deception
justified by the traditional Shi'ite legal
principle called taqiyyah. But a quick fact
check would have shown that taqiyyah is
specifically limited to hiding one's Shi'ite faith
to avoid being killed or otherwise seriously
harmed if it were acknowledged.
cited unnamed "analysts" who argued that
Khamenei's recent statements that Iran had not and
would not develop nuclear weapons were
contradicted by remarks he had made last year
"that it was a mistake for Colonel Muammar
el-Gaddafi of Libya to give up his nuclear weapons
But the quote from Khamenei
complained that "this gentleman wrapped up all his
nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and
delivered them to the West and said, 'Take them'!"
Khamenei then added, "Look where we are, and in
what position they are now."
references to "all his nuclear facilities" - not
to his nuclear weapons program, as claimed by
Risen - and to the contrast between the ultimate
fate of the Gaddafi regime and the Islamic
Republic's survival appear to have been suggesting
that merely having a nuclear program without
nuclear weapons can be a deterrent to attack.
That same point has been made by other
Iranian officials who cite the Japanese model as
one for Iran to emulate.
In another effort
to discredit the fatwa, Risen wrote that
Khamenei's predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, reversed his initial opposition to the
shah's nuclear program as inconsistent with Islam
in 1984, and "secretly decided to restart the
nuclear weapons program".
Risen cited no
source for that statement, but it is apparently
based on an article by David Albright in the
Tehran Bureau's "Iran Primer". Albright wrote, "A
2009 internal IAEA [International Atomic Energy
Agency] working document reports that in April
1984, then president Ali Khamenei announced to top
Iranian officials that Khomeini had decided to
reactivate the nuclear program as the only way to
secure the Islamic revolution from the schemes of
its enemies, epecially the United States and
Even if that report, coming from
an unidentified IAEA member country, was accurate,
Risen misreported it, again substituting "nuclear
weapons program" for "nuclear program".
But the claim cited in the IAEA working
document is also demonstrably false, because it is
well documented that the Islamic Republic had
decided to continue Iran's nuclear program in 1981
and even made a formal request in 1983 for the
IAEA to help it convert yellowcake into reactor
Missing from the Times article was
any reference to Iran's refusal to retaliate with
chemical weapons for Iraq's repeated chemical
weapons attacks on Iranian cities, based on US
intelligence on Iranian troop concentrations,
killing 7,000 immediately and severely injuring at
Although US military
officers disseminated reports during the war
alleging Iranian use of chemical weapons against
Iraq, the most authoritative study of the issue,
Joost Hilterman's 2007 book A Poisonous
Affair, shows those reports represented US
disinformation. Hilterman concludes that no
reliable evidence ever surfaced that Iran used
such weapons during the war.
In a dispatch
from Qom on October 31, 2003, Robert Collier of
the San Francisco Chronicle, quoted Grand
Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, one of the highest ranking
clerics in Iran, as saying in an interview that
Iran never retaliated against Iraqi chemical
attacks with its own chemical weapons because of
the strong opposition of Iranian clerical
authorities to the development of weapons of mass
The only reference in the Times report to
Khamenei's role in the 2003 nuclear policy turning
point was the statement that Khamenei "ordered a
suspension of Iran's nuclear weapons program."
In fact, however, Khamenei did far more
than "suspend" nuclear weapons work. He invoked
the illicit nature of such weapons in Islam in
order to enforce a policy decision to ban nuclear
There is evidence that there
was a long-simmering debate within the Islamic
Republic behind the scenes over whether Iran
should leave the door open to a nuclear weapons
program or not. Both Khamenei and president
Hashemi Rafsanjani had publicly opposed the idea
of possessing nuclear weapons in the mid-1990s,
but pressure for reconsideration of the issue had
risen, especially after the aggressive posture of
the George W Bush administration toward Iran.
In 2003, the debate came to a head,
because Iran was reaching the stage where it would
either have to cooperate fully with the IAEA or be
accused of violating its commitments under the
nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), provoking
serious international consequences.
Atomic Energy Organization, which had gotten much
more freedom from bureaucratic control in
1999-2000, was dragging its feet on cooperation
with the IAEA, and some scientists, engineers and
military men did not want to give up the option to
develop a nuclear weapons program.
those circumstances, in a March 21, 2003 speech in
Mashad, Khamenei began speaking out again on
Islam's opposition to weapons of mass destruction.
"We are not interested in an atomic bomb. We are
opposed to chemical weapons," he said, adding,
"These things are against our principles."
In July, he repeated his renunciation of
all weapons of mass destruction.
IAEA passed a resolution demanding that Iran
suspend enrichment and adopt an intrusive
monitoring system in September, the Atomic Energy
Organization and its bureaucratic and political
allies were arguing that there was no danger of
being taken to the United Nations Security Council
because Russia and China would protect Iran's
And hardliners were arguing
publicly that Iran should withdraw from the NPT
rather than make any effort to convince the West
that Iran did not intend to make nuclear weapons.
Sometime in September and October,
Khamenei ordered the designation of the secretary
of supreme national security council Hassan
Rohani, who reported directly to him, as the
single individual responsible for coordinating all
aspects of nuclear policy.
A key task for
Rohani was to enforce Khamenei's ban on nuclear
weapons. Later, Rohani recalled telling then
president Mohammed Khatemi that he wasn't sure all
agencies "were willing to cooperate 100 percent"
and predicted "both disharmony and sabotage".
It was Rohani himself who announced on
October 25, 2003, that Khamenei believed that
nuclear weapons were illegal under Islam. A
few days later, one of Khamenei's advisers,
Hussein Shariatmadari, president of Kayhan
newspapers, told Collier, "Those in Iran who
clandestinely believed they could develop nuclear
weapons have now been forced to admit that it is
forbidden under Islam."
Ever since then,
Iranian officials have often referred to
Khamenei's fatwa against nuclear weapons.
Skeptics have questioned whether such a
fatwa exists, arguing that no published
text of the fatwa can be found. But even
Mehdi Khalaji of the pro-Israel Washington
Institute for Near East Policy acknowledged in an
essay published last September that Khamenei's
oral statements are considered fatwas and
are binding on believers.
Porter is an investigative historian and
journalist specializing in US national security
policy. The paperback edition of his latest
book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power
and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published