The nuclear fatwa that wasn’t—how Iran sold the world a false narrative

“The idea struck me to introduce the concept of a fatwa [during the 2004 nuclear] negotiations. There was no coordination [in advance],” Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator at the time recounted eight years after the incident. This was nothing short of a stroke of genius in shaping a false narrative about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, which was delivered by a cleric who eventually rose in the ranks and became a two-term president (2013–2021): Hassan Rouhani.

In a 2012 interview with local magazine Mehrnameh, Rouhani recounted the 2004 talks with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, and claimed that he told them that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “has issued a fatwa and declared it forbidden to acquire a bomb. This fatwa is more important for us than the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and the additional protocol. It is more important to us than any law.”

Rouhani added that he was referencing comments made by the supreme leader ahead of Friday prayers in Tehran a week prior, when Khamenei said, “No, we aren’t thinking about nuclear weapons. I have said many times that our nuclear weapon is this nation. Our nuclear weapons are these youths. We don’t want nuclear weapons. A state that has so many young believers and this unified nation doesn’t need nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons, their production, storage, and use, each has a problem. We have also expressed our religious opinion, which is clear, and everyone knows it.”

However, Khamenei’s “religious opinion” about nuclear arms has always been a carefully crafted message concocted and repeated by him—never in writing but only in speeches—in which he has exclusively called the “use” of nuclear arms “haram” (forbidden).

The campaign of deceit was initiated when the Islamic Republic saw its survival at imminent risk. In a speech the day after the March 20, 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Khamenei said, “We don’t want a nuclear bomb. We are even opposed to having chemical weapons…These things don’t agree with our principles.”

Over the years, Khamenei and other high-ranking officials have repeated this line while Iranian scientists were busy developing “all necessary components” for the development of a nuclear weapon— and the supreme leader has consistently celebrated these scientists.

Tracking Khamenei’s comments over the past two decades demonstrates that he never issued a fatwa against building a nuclear weapon, and only tentatively and revocably spoke against the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The “fatwa”

What eventually became a staple talking point of Iranian diplomats was sold to world powers as the supreme leader’s “fatwa” prohibiting nuclear arms. In reality, it was the last paragraph of his message to the first iteration of the International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, which Tehran hosted in 2010.

The segment of the message marketed by the Iranian diplomatic missions as a “fatwa” reads, “We believe that adding to nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical weapons and biological weapons, are a serious threat to humanity. The Iranian nation, which itself is a victim of the use of chemical weapons, feels more than other nations the danger of the production and accumulation of such weapons and is ready to put all its resources in the way of dealing with it. We consider the use of these weapons to be haram (forbidden), and the effort to protect mankind from this great disaster is everyone’s duty.”

The supreme leader’s official website includes several pages dedicated to explaining his stance on nuclear arms, with one listing all comments he has made about them. Among the eighty-five quotes, the word “haram” is used only three times and exclusively about the “use of nuclear weapons,” not their production or stockpiling. He has also twice called the “use” of weapons of mass destruction a “great sin.”

On the same page, the only quote that includes the term “fatwa” comes from a 2015 speech and reads, “We don’t want a nuclear weapon. Not because of what they say, but because of ourselves, because of our religion, because of our rational reasons. This is both our religious fatwa and our rational fatwa. Our rational fatwa is that we don’t need nuclear weapons today, tomorrow, or ever. Nuclear weapons are a source of trouble for a country like ours.”

In sharia law, all acts fall into five categories: wajib (obligatory), mustahab (recommended), mubah (neutral), makruh (disapproved), and haram (forbidden). In the case of nuclear weapons, the supreme leader clearly, and presumably intentionally, has avoided labeling the “production and storage” of nuclear arms with a religious label, leaving room for a nuclear weapons program.

In addition to beguiling world powers with a false narrative about the nonexistent fatwa, the double-speak commentary by the supreme leader gives powerful factions within the regime enough ammunition to pursue the development of a nuclear weapon.

Furthermore, a point of pride for Shia Muslims is that fatwas are not inherently permanent, and Islamic jurists can—and often do—reinterpret the scripture “in accord with the needs of time.” Throughout the history of political Islam, Shia ayatollahs have used fatwas as a political tool against adversaries. For example, in the 1890s, Ayatollah Mirza Shirazi issued a fatwa during nationwide protests after the ruling Qajar Dynasty granted a British merchant a monopoly on the growth, sale, and export of tobacco in Iran. This forced the king to revoke the monopoly; after it served its political purpose, the fatwa was also removed.
A “cornered cat”

Iranian officials have consistently warned that, if push comes to shove, they might openly seek nuclear weapons.

In 2021, then Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi told state television, “The Supreme Leader has explicitly said in his fatwa that nuclear weapons are against sharia law and the Islamic Republic sees them as religiously forbidden and does not pursue them. But a cornered cat may behave differently from when the cat is free. And if [Western states] push Iran in that direction, then it’s no longer Iran’s fault.”

In June 2023, Khamenei warned world powers that they “cannot stop” his regime if it desires to build nuclear weapons—a threat echoed by Iran’s former nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi. In February, Salehi boasted that the regime has “all components” necessary for building a bomb.

With heightened tensions in the Middle East, and amid the Islamic Republic’s four-decade war with Israel creeping out of the shadows and into the open, the clerical establishment has been testing the waters for openly announcing its nuclear aspirations.

In a March speech at a Quran exhibition, Hojatolislam Mohammad Fuker Meibodi said that the Muslim holy book orders believers to amass weapons that would “sow fear in the heart of the enemies.” He argued that weapons of the past—namely swords and cannons—will not achieve that aim and “therefore, maybe we should acquire nuclear weapons.”

Iranian nuclear scientist Mahmoud Reza Aghamiri—who has ties to the supreme leader’s office and currently serves as dean of Shahid Beheshti University—said on state television on April 7 that the supreme leader “can tomorrow change his stance” on building nuclear weapons and that his regime “has the capability” to make the leap because building the bomb is “not complicated.”

Aghamiri is among the top Iranian officials who have publicly endorsed the development of a nuclear bomb. In 2022, he said that Tehran can speed up uranium enrichment to 99 percent, build a nuclear warhead, and use it as both “deterrence” and a bargaining chip in interactions with the West “like North Korea,” which, according to him, gets away with “bullying” the world.

Such rhetoric has only intensified in Iran following the April 13 attack against Israel in retaliation for the April 1 killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders in Syria. Anticipating a response from Israel, which eventually arrived on April 19, Iranian officials warned against the targeting of nuclear facilities in the country.

On April 18, Ahmad Haghtalab, the IRGC commander in charge of nuclear security, said, “If the false Zionist regime decides to exploit the threat of attacking our country’s nuclear sites to pressure Iran, revision of Islamic Republic’s nuclear policies and doctrine and dropping of previously announced considerations in possible and perceivable.” Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting reported his comments, sharing a video of him pronouncing the nuclear threat.

Javan, an influential daily close to the IRGC, wrote on the same day that it was the “first time a senior IRGC official” issued such a threat, and noted that state media were forcefully highlighting the comments, signaling “coordination with top decision-making bodies.”

The daily argued that every state’s primary goal is “survival no matter the cost” and that, before launching the April 13 attack against the “nuclear armed” Israel, Tehran had “prepared itself for engagement at highest level or at least is seeking to establish a new equilibrium.”

Javan warned “Israel to take the warning serious” because “all technical hurdles have been removed and with a wave of the hand from Imam Khamenei” and the regime “can” build a nuclear bomb.

Pro-reform daily Hammihan wrote on April 20 that the Islamic Republic’s attack against Israel from Iranian soil has “created a new norm of confrontation” between the two nations. According to the daily, in this new context, proxy forces “cannot provide the deterrence Iran needs.” The daily argued that if “Iran is pushed towards acquiring a nuclear weapon or adopting nuclear ambiguity, it would benefit from increased deterrence.”

On April 22, a member of the National Security Commission of the parliament, Javad Karimi Ghodousi, wrote on X (formerly Twitter), “If [supreme leader] issues permission, we would be a week away from testing the first [nuclear bomb].”

As an officer of the IRGC, Ghodousi has high security clearance. Through his key position in the parliament, he is privy to military decisions made at the top of the food chain. This attracted much attention when, ahead of the April 13 strike against Israel, he tweeted that the attack was happening “in a matter of hours.”

In an apparent effort to soften heightened rhetoric, on April 22, the spokesperson of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Naser Kanani said, “Nuclear weapons have no place in Iran’s defense and military strategy.”

Iran-based security analyst Alireza Taghavinia, a frequent guest of state television, reacted to the mixed signals out of Tehran, writing on X, “General Haghtalab has fulfilled his assigned duty. [MP] Karimi Qudousi has sent the necessary pulse. The Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson has also fulfilled his inherent duty. Politics has complexities and subtleties that not everyone can understand.”

Ghodousi doubled down on the comments on April 23, in a video saying that the International Atomic Energy Agency is aware that the Islamic Republic “needs half a day or maximum a week to build a nuclear warhead.”

The nuclear threat has been echoed by people privy to the supreme leader’s thinking as well. On May 9, Khamenei’s top foreign policy advisor Kamal Kharrazi warned that if Israel threatens the existence of the Islamic Republic, Tehran will change its nuclear doctrine. “We have no decision to build a nuclear bomb but should Iran’s existence be threatened, there will have no choice but to change our military doctrine,” Kharrazi told Al Jazeera Mubasher.

A Persian proverb advises that, before shouting an insult, it is best to first murmur it to test the waters. The crescendoing chorus of Iranian officials, from IRGC generals to members of parliament to scientists advocating for the development of a nuclear weapon as “deterrent” is another sign of how a nuclear weapons program may emerge from the shadows. Unsurprisingly, all Iranian officials signaling this possible change in policy have pointed to the so-called “fatwa” and its impermanent nature—another sign of the move being orchestrated by the upper echelons of the clerical establishment.

Eyeing tectonic shifts in global power dynamics, the eighty-five-year-old Khamenei, who has unchecked powers and delusions about divine intervention on his behalf, is besieged by crises at every corner. In response, he appears to be shedding his decades-old habit of being a cautious gambler. Now a “cornered cat,” the ailing ayatollah, in a rush to solidify his legacy, is more likely than ever to embark on a path toward a nuclear weapon to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic.

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