An important element in the renewal of nuclear negotiations with Iran in the talks in Istanbul April 13-14, 2012 was an alleged fatwa attributed to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, according to which the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons. Indeed, U.S. leaders – among them Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and even U.S. President Barack Obama – along with 5+1 representatives to the talks, the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors, and even highly respected research institutes considered the fatwa as an actual fact, and examined its significance and implications for the nuclear negotiations with Iran that were renewed in Istanbul.
However, an investigation by MEMRI reveals that 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.
Iranian regime officials' presentation of statements on nuclear weapons attributed to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as a fatwa, or religious edict, when no such fatwa existed or was issued by him, is a propaganda effort to propose to the West a religiously valid substitute for concrete guarantees of inspectors' access to Iran's nuclear facilities. Since the West does not consider mere statements, by Khamenei or by other regime officials, to be credible, the Iranian regime has put forth a fraudulent fatwa that the West would be more inclined to trust.
This paper will review Iran's attempt at deception with regard to the existence of such a fatwa.
U.S. Officials Laud Nonexistent Fatwa
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clarified that she had discussed the fatwa with "experts and religious scholars" and also with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At the NATO conference in Norfolk, VA, in early April, she stated: "The other interesting development which you may have followed was the repetition by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that they would – that he had issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, against weapons of mass destruction. Prime Minister Erdogan and I discussed this at some length, and I’ve discussed with a number of experts and religious scholars. And if it 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 [emphasis added]. So we will test that as well."
During his visit to Tehran in late March, in an interview with Iranian state television IRIB, Prime Minister Erdogan said, "I have shared the Leader's [Khamenei's] statement with [U.S. President Barack] Obama and told him that in face of this assertion I do not have a different position and they (Iranians) are using nuclear energy peacefully."
On April 7, 2012, Kayhan International reported, citing Press TV, that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had told the Turkish Kanal D TV that there is no possibility that "Khamenei's fatwa forbidding the possession and use of nuclear weapons might be disobeyed in Iran." According to the report, Davutoglu "said that since the fatwa against the possession and pursuit of nuclear weapons was issued by Velayat-e Faqih (the rule of the jurisprudent), it is binding, and obeying it is a religious obligation."
Also according to the report, also citing Press TV, Khamenei said on February 22, 2012: "There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous."
The report went on to state that "Davutoglu also said that if the Western powers are really interested in interacting with the Middle Eastern states, they should deepen their understanding of religious discourse, adding that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had previously instructed U.S. President Barack Obama on the issue."
American Iranian Council (AIC) president and dual Iranian-U.S. citizen Hooshang Amirahmadi, who is close to elite regime circles in Iran, said: "Fortunately, President Obama has decided to tentatively trust the Supreme Leader on his words that '[the] nuclear bomb is forbidden in Islam.'"
However, MEMRI's investigation reveals that no such fatwa ever existed or was ever issued or 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.
What does exist are Iranian reports starting in 2005, on statements by an Iranian representative, Sirus Naseri, at a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors on August 11, 2005 that Khamenei had issued such a fatwa (See Appendix II for documents.)
After 2005, there are additional statements by senior regime representatives about the existence of the fatwa, for example on April 12, 2012 by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in an op-ed in the Washington Post on the eve of the talks. He wrote: "We have strongly marked our opposition to weapons of mass destruction on many occasions. Almost seven years ago, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a binding commitment. He issued a religious edict – a fatwa – forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons."
Also, the Iranian news agency Mehr reported on April 11, 2012, that Iranian judiciary head Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani had said: "The fatwa that the Supreme Leader has issued is the best guarantee that Iran will never seek to produce nuclear weapons." Mehr itself also noted in the same report that Khamenei had issued a fatwa banning the use of nuclear weapons: "Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa declaring that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are all haram (prohibited in Islam)."
In contrast, a review published April 8, 2012 by Iran's official news agency IRNA giving in detail Supreme Leader Khamenei's past mentions of the ban on the use of nuclear weapons does not mention any fatwa by him. This, even though in August 2005 IRNA had already reported that Iran's special representative to the IAEA Board of Directors had handed a report on Khamenei's alleged fatwa, and that this report – though not the fatwa itself – had been submitted to the IAEA board as an official Iranian document (see Appendix II). It should be noted that this August 2005 IRNA report on the fatwa was reported by other websites, such as mathaba.net but that the original report in IRNA, at http://www.irna.ir/en/news/view/menu-236/0508104135124631.htm, can no longer be accessed (see Appendix III).
These reports were designed to, and apparently did, elevate Iran's status vis-à-vis the West, despite Iran's refusal to allow inspections of its nuclear sites. Iranian regime officials' presentation of statements on nuclear weapons attributed to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as a fatwa, or religious edict, when no such fatwa existed or was issued by him, is a propaganda effort to propose to the West a religiously valid substitute for concrete guarantees of inspectors' access to Iran's nuclear facilities. Since the West does not consider mere statements, by Khamenei or by other regime officials, to be credible, the Iranian regime has put forth a fraudulent fatwa that the West would be more inclined to trust.
No Such Fatwa On Official Websites of Supreme Leader
An exhaustive search of the various official websites of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei turned up no such fatwa, either on his fatwa website or on his personal website.
Khamenei's websites post fatwas issued by him in response to questions submitted to him. Online submission of questions is an accepted and official means; all his websites offer readers options for doing so. Fatwas are issued by jurisprudents in standard question-and-answer format, and are published publicly in writing. They can also include the reasoning behind them, but not always. Today, fatwas are generally concise and limited to a yes or no answer – but always in question-and-answer form, including a summary by the jurisprudent, as follows: "I was asked a question on a certain matter. My answer is such and such." This can be seen in the following.
On March 15, 2012, the following question on the possession and use of nuclear weapons and referring to the alleged fatwa was submitted to Supreme Leader Khamenei, via Facebook, by a group called The Light of Freedom (Cheragh-e Azadi): (for image, see Appendix IV).
"Q: Your Excellency has announced a ban on the use of nuclear weapons, and considering that nuclear weapons are a requirement for deterrence and that the aim of obtaining them is to intimidate the enemies in order to prevent them from acting aggressively, and in light of what is written in Surat Al-Anfal, Verse 60... is it also forbidden to obtain nuclear weapons, as per your ruling that their use is prohibited?
"A: Your letter has no jurisprudential aspect. When it has a jurisprudent position, then it will be possible to answer it.
"Summary: No answer was given."
This particular question and answer on Facebook do not appear on Khamenei's fatwa website or on his personal website. It is notable that in his response he did not confirm, or even mention, any fatwa that he allegedly issued in the past – and that his summary notes that no response was given.
This question-and-answer format is mandatory for fatwas, so that any position on a particular religious question will be recognized as a fatwa. Even if the jurisprudent refers to an issue verbally, his words do not constitute a fatwa unless it is later issued in this format. Any expression of a position in any matter that is not issued in writing in the format of "I was asked a question on a certain matter. My answer is such and such..." is not a fatwa and does not carry the religious significance of one; it is merely a statement.
Report On Fatwa Stating "Shari'a Does Not Prohibit the Use Of Nuclear Weapons"
On February 16, 2006, the Rooz website reported that Mohsen Gharavian, a disciple of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, had noted the existence of a fatwa stating that shari'a did not prohibit the use of nuclear weapons and, in fact, even calling for obtaining such weapons (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1096, "Reformist Iranian Internet Daily: A New Fatwa States That Religious Law Does Not Forbid Use of Nuclear Weapons," February 17, 2006 http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/1614.htm). The website reported that, for the first time, extremist clerics from Qom had issued what the daily called "a new fatwa," which states that "shari'a does not forbid the use of nuclear weapons."
Could Iranian Regime Officials Lie? The Principle of Taqiyya
Iran's efforts to deceive the West about the alleged Khamenei fatwa raises the question of whether Khamenei and the rest of the senior regime officials could actually lie about this matter to world leaders.
One of the foundations of Shi'ite Islam is the principle of taqiyya –"the obligation to be cautious" – as manifested in the use of lies for self-defense purposes. Doing so is completely legitimate in Shi'ite Islam, and has been employed throughout Shi'ite history.
The website of the Vali-e Asr Research Institute, which was founded 20 years ago in Qom by Ayatollah Khazali and which deals with answering religious questions on various matters, is considered an important research institution in the Shi'ite religious establishment. The institute explains the principle of taqiyya and sets out the categories of circumstances under which its use is required. One of these categories deals with taqiyya by (Shi'ite) Muslims towards non-Muslims. The publication of a false report on the alleged existence of such a fatwa by Khamenei, and Iranian officials' use of such a fatwa for the purpose of Iran's self defense, is an example of the application of the principle of taqiyya.
Appendix I: Images From MEMRI Investigation on Supreme Leader Khamenei's Fatwa
MEMRI's investigation of websites of the office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (leader.ir) turned up no results about a fatwa on the subject of nuclear weapons. The highlighted phrase in the image says "The term 'nuclear weapons" was not found."
MEMRI's investigation of farsi.khamenei.ir for the term "nuclear weapons" also produced no fatwa.
It should be noted that the term "nuclear weapons" did show up in searches of Khamenei's declarations and statements in meetings with Iranian and foreign elements – but not in fatwas.
Appendix II: IAEA Documents
Appendix III – 2005 IRNA Report Of Fatwa No Longer Accessible
Appendix IV: Question to Khamenei on Nuclear Weapons
*A. Savyon is director of the Iranian media project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI*
 American-iranian.org, accessed April 13, 2012