November 29, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 433

Khamenei's 'Nuclear Fatwa,' Once Again

November 29, 2022 | By A. Savyon, Yigal Carmon, and Ze'ev B. Begin*
Iran | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 433

In a new book titled Religion and Nuclear Weapons, A Study of Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan  (Vij Books India Pvt Ltd, 2022, 120 pp.), Dr. Shameer Modongal of Kerala University and Professor Seyed Hossein Mousavian of Princeton University lay out a detailed argument that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Professor Mousavian has some experience in this issue, as he was spokesperson for Iran in its nuclear negotiations with the International Community in 2003-2005 and foreign policy advisor to the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2005-2007.

The authors begin in an academic and methodical manner, with general descriptions of various political science models that explain why some states choose to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Next is a learned discussion of the role of religion in shaping states' national security policies, and a very detailed focus on statements by Iranian clerics and a discussion of the Iranian theocracy's policy on WMDs. The authors' reasoning is based on the decisive role played by religious edicts (fatwas) in the decisions of the Islamic Iranian regime. Asserting that the development, acquisition and use of WMDs are forbidden in Islam, they then discuss how Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's alleged anti-nuclear weapons fatwa is legally binding upon Iran's theocracy and would completely prevent Iranian attempts to acquire a nuclear bomb.

In a detailed rebuttal to those who doubt the existence of the fatwa, Modogal and Mousavian acknowledge that there is no such written fatwa (p. 69) but argue that "this concern is not significant considering the position of Ayatollah Khamenei and the publicity of his statements. As far as the legitimacy of a fatwa in concerned, it is not necessary to be issued in written form. It has been a practice since early times to issue oral fatwas, and it may be written down by those who heard them. The statements of Ayatollah Khamenei have also been reported by those who heard it. His statements against nuclear weapons have been published on his personal website."

What the authors do not clarify is how one might distinguish between a political declaration in a speech by the Supreme Leader as head of state and a formal and binding religious edict that is considered a fatwa that he issues as the supreme religious authority. If Khamenei's statements against Iran's possession of nuclear weapons have indeed been published on his personal website, it would be strange for him, a jurisprudent, to have consistently refrained from taking one more step and publishing it on one of his two sites in which  his fatwas appear in their traditional format. That format is a specific question addressed to the jurisprudent and, in response, his ruling on it, based on religious arguments.

Khamenei: Nuclear Weapons Are Not A Jurisprudent Issue

With this question looming above their discussion, the authors conclude that "the position and power of Ayatollah Khamenei ensure the long-lasting of this religious position of Iran [banning acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran] without being challenged by other scholars…" (p.71). However, they fail to mention that it was Khamenei himself who explained, in writing, that his position on Iranian nuclear weaponry is not based on religion. On March 15, 2012, the following question was submitted to Khamenei via Facebook by an Iranian opposition group called Cheragh-e Azadi ("The Light of Freedom"):

"Question: 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?"


Khamenei's response, also on Facebook, was brief: "Answer: Your letter has no jurisprudential aspect. When it has a jurisprudent position, then it will be possible to answer it." The exchange was concluded by a "Summary: No answer was given."[1]

Nine years later, on February 22, 2021, Khamenei tweeted a less cautious message in English: "Iran is not after nuclear weapons. But it's [sic] nuclear enrichment will not be limited to 20% either. It will enrich Uranium to any extent that is necessary for the country. Iran's enrichment level may reach 60% to meet the country's needs." It is well known, though, that there are no civilian purposes for which a country needs uranium enriched to more than 20%; 60% is the enrichment level required to fuel nuclear submarines.[2]

A year later, on March 10, 2022, addressing Iran's Assembly of Experts, Khamenei referred to nuclear weapons as "an arm of power" and explained: "The nuclear issue is […] about scientific progress and our future technology. […] People are talking about making concessions to America or to others in order to become immune to the sanctions. This means severing this arm of our policy and [giving up] this bargaining chip […] I believe that these [compromises] are mistakes. If, over the years, the people who want to chop off some of those arms of power had been given permission to do so, our country would be facing great danger today."[3] This position is in line with Khamenei's ridicule, in his March 20, 2011 Persian New Year address, of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi for handing over his nuclear installations to the U.S.: "This gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship, and delivered them to the West and said, 'Take them!' Look in what position our nation is, and in what position they [the Libyans] are now."[4]  

The New Iranian Talk About Iran's Need For Nuclear Weapons

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 sparked a surge of blunt Iranian talk, including depictions of Iran's future nuclear weapons as essential to Iranian national security.[5] Iranian Majlis (parliament) member Mohammad Ka'ab Amir said on February 26, 2022: "Ukraine is an example from which the supporters of the West and the East must learn. We must insist on the nuclear rights of the Iranian people […] so Iran will be strong, with nuclear and military might." On the same day, the daily mouthpiece of the Iranian regime, Kayhan, wrote: "A close look at the dimensions of the Ukraine crisis and the world's response to it indicates very clearly why the leader of the [Iranian] Revolution [Khamenei] has stressed the issue of building strength on every level, and has firmly opposed any concession regarding factors that guarantee the country's [ability to defend its] security on its own, without relying on others." Two days later, it clarified: "An important lesson of the Ukrainian war is that, in order to dispel threats, one must be strong. Disarming and handing over one's sources of strength is the deadliest mistake..." Similarly, Passive Defense Organization head, Gen. Gholamreza Jalali said on March 6, 2022: "One of [Ukraine's] mistakes was that although it is one of the world's nuclear powers, it transferred all its nuclear facilities and capabilities to Europe in exchange for European security and support."

Continuing in this series of open statements, Dr. Mahmoud-Reza Aghamiri, head of the nuclear engineering department at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, spoke candidly to an audience on April 9, 2022, saying: "Today, you have deterrence capability. What does this mean? It means you can raise your uranium enrichment level to 99% within a very short period of time. You have the power, if needed, to 'let off control' the nuclear fission. In other words, you can install it on a warhead and let it do whatever it wants [...] It is natural to have the power, the might, and the capabilities that would make your enemy succumb to your demands in the negotiations."

Kamal Kharrazi, former Iranian foreign minister (1997-2005) and currently a foreign policy advisor to Khamenei as well as chairman of Iran's Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, said in a July 17, 2022 interview on Qatar's Al-Jazeera TV: "It is no secret that we have become a nuclear threshold country. This is the reality. This is a fact. It is no secret that we have the required technological capabilities to produce a nuclear bomb. But we do not want that and have not decided to do so. In the past, we raised the level of uranium enrichment from 20% to 60% in a matter of days. We can simply raise this level to 90%."[6]

The Nuclear Fatwa Legend – Where Did It Come From?

In view of these statements, one may wonder where the legend of a binding, anti-nuclear fatwa issued by Khamenei came from. The following account shows its trivial origin. On November 15, 2004, in Paris, Iran signed an agreement with France, Germany and the United Kingdom in which it declared that "it does not and will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons." It also undertook to "continue and extend its suspension to include all enrichment related and reprocessing activities." In return, the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors decided not to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council.

To reach this agreement, Iran's then-chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani, who would later become Iranian president, sought an argument that would win the confidence of the Europeans, and decided to make use of a Friday sermon that Khamenei had delivered in Tehran on November 5, 2004, 10 days before the Paris agreement was signed. Years later, in a television interview with the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service that aired in May 2012, Rouhani claimed that Khamenei had "talked about the fatwa" in his sermon. However, Khamenei had only said in the sermon that "nuclear weapons, their production, storage and use – each of these is problematic. We have also expressed our jurisprudential opinion. It is clear, and everyone knows [it]." In other words, in his sermon Khamenei had neither issued a fatwa nor used the religious term "haram" ("forbidden") – he had merely called nuclear weapons "problematic."

In this 2012 interview, Rouhani exposed his trick, stating: "That was when we were on the verge of the Paris Agreement. The European troika emphasized [the need for] strong guarantees [to not develop nuclear weapons] […] I told the three European ministers that they should know about two explicit guarantees from our side, one of which is the fatwa of the Supreme Leader [who] declared the production of nuclear weapons haram [forbidden]. This fatwa is more important to us than the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and its Additional Protocol, more important than any other law." Asked whether he brought the matter up after previous consultations Rouhani answered: "it occurred to me right there to bring it up."[7] Thus, on the spur of the moment, the "nuclear fatwa" was diplomatically birthed. Responding to the next question, Rouhani said that the Iranian government had even considered making the "fatwa" into a law, because the Europeans "were saying that if [the fatwa] becomes the law, it would eliminate the West's concerns. […] This was a confidence-building measure for the West." It is thus clear that the legend of the "nuclear fatwa" was the result of Rouhani's 2004 cunning political move.

Finally, a surprise: Despite the learned content of his new book Religion and Nuclear Weapons, and its emphasis on the binding nature of the "nuclear fatwa," Professor Mousavian warned in a recent article (emphasis added): "If Western powers try to corner Iran and reinstate UN-led sanctions, Tehran would likely withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Any military strike by Israel or the U.S. would likely then push Iran towards building a nuclear weapon."[8]



* Ayelet Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project; Yigal Carmon is MEMRI Founder and President; Ze'ev B. Begin is a Senior Fellow at MEMRI.

Appendix: MEMRI Reports On Khamenei's Nonexistent Nuclear Fatwa

The following are MEMRI reports on the issue of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's fatwa banning nuclear weapons – which does not exist:


[5] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 377, Iran Speaks Bluntly – And We Should Listen Carefully,  April 29, 2022.

[8] Seyed Hossein Mousavian, 2022, Iran turmoil: The nuclear deal must be saved and bold reforms enacted. Middle East Eye, November 7, 2022

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