Are Nuclear Weapons Really a “Big Sin” to Iran’s Supreme Leader?

Ayatollah KhameiniJames Risen’sApril 14 article for the New York Times on Iran’s Supreme Leader’s nuclear-weapons intentions — or lack thereof — has attracted much attention. Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, he writes, “often uses religious language when he talks about the nuclear issue, which can jar Western analysts trying to gauge the meaning of such strong statements.” It’s well known that he once issued a fatwa against the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran. As recently as February, Risen writes, Ayatollah Khameini said: “Iran is not seeking to have the atomic bomb, possession of which is pointless, dangerous and is a great sin from an intellectual and a religious point of view.”

Here are further excerpts from his pronouncements, about which I recently posted (Iran Tries to Take the Moral High Ground on Nukes). More from the February speech (the translation on his official website):

Nuclear weapons are not at all beneficial to us. Moreover, from an ideological and fiqhi perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin. We also believe that keeping such weapons is futile and dangerous, and we will never go after them.

In 2011 Ayatollah Khameini spoke about nuclear weapons at greater length.

Iran is not after an atomic bomb, and it is even opposed to possession of chemical weapons. Even when Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran, we did not try to manufacture chemical weapons. Such things are not in line with the principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Furthermore, he declared that nuclear weapons “are useless except for intimidation, massacre and a false sense of security based on pre-emptive power resulting from guaranteed annihilation of everyone.” Citing the atom bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Risen quoted him saying (emphasis added):

The use of nuclear weapons resulted not only in large-scale killings and destruction, but also in indiscriminate massacre of people. … Therefore, using or even threatening to use such weapons is considered a serious violation of the most basic humanitarian rules and is a clear manifestation of war crimes.

Risen points out, though, that:

… those comments are not only at odds with some of Iran’s behavior but also with. … remarks Ayatollah Khamenei made last year that it was a mistake for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to give up his nuclear weapons program.

Referring to Colonel Qaddafi, Ayatollah Khamenei said that “this gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, ‘Take them!’ “

“Look where we are, and in what position they are now,” he added.

Risen, however, fails to note that those remarks sound less like Ayatollah Khamanei expressing his personal feelings, than stating a fact. Risen then writes:

Complicating matters further, some 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.

In response to Risen, Juan Cole examines taqiyya more closely.

Imam Ruhullah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, demanded that taqiyya be abandoned in favor of holy war or jihad. Shiite expert Rainer Brunner argues that pious dissimulation has “completely lost its importance” in contemporary, Shiite-majority Iran.

So the idea that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the theocratic leader of a Shiite-majority Islamic Republic, would give a dishonest fatwa about a key principle in Islamic law (the prohibition on killing innocent non-combatants in war) is a non-starter. Khamenei, being in Khomeini’s tradition, is bound by the latter’s hostility to dissimulation.

That may well be, but considering his brutal record, Ayatollah Khameini’s ethical code can only be judged as selective at best. In 2009 accounts by a defector from his private guard provided insights into his ruthless policies, as well as his lavish lifestyle. For instance, the defector — considered credible by many — provided:

… new information that links Ayatollah Khamenei to the brutal assault on protestors following the presidential elections in June. The man [named Hossain Taeb] alleged to have [been] carrying out interrogations of prisoners at the notorious Kahrizak detention centre, where at least three people were tortured to death, is a key part of the inner circle. [He] is said to have run an extensive surveillance operation for the personal use of Ayatollah Khamenei for almost 15 years. Each evening the leader is said to listen to recordings of senior officials and colleague talking about him in a compilation that normally lasts 20 minutes. [Meanwhile] the leader’s second son… played a prominent role in organising the Basij militia that has meted out violence against protesters. [Like the Stalinesque touch where the emphasis is added? -- RW]

But Gareth Porter provides more evidence that Ayatollah Khameini sought to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

When the IAEA passed a resolution demanding that Iran suspend enrichment and adopt an intrusive monitoring system in September [2003]. … 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. … It was Rohani himself who announced on Oct. 25, 2003, that Khamenei believed that nuclear weapons were illegal under Islam.

Still, it behooves us to revisit some of Ayatollah Khomeini’s comments for a moment.

… we do not possess a nuclear weapon, and we will not build one. … Iran is not seeking to have the atomic bomb. … using or even threatening to use such weapons is considered a serious violation of the most basic humanitarian rules and is a clear manifestation of war crimes.

Ayatollah Khomeini addresses the possession and use of nuclear weapons, but neglects to mention developing or acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons without actually manufacturing and deploying them. One might be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that denouncing what’s known as “latent” or “virtual” deterrence is obviously implied in condemning the use of weapons.

First of all, though, even though he was never a marja (a grand ayatollah empowered to make decisions in religious law), it’s a mistake to overlook the fondness for hair-splitting that theological authorities of all stripes share with lawyers (the “How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?” syndrome). In other words, Ayatollah Khameini may see actual nuclear weapons and their deployment as a sin, but not the capability to manufacture them.

Let’s return now to Risen’s statement that he “often uses religious language when he talks about the nuclear issue, which can jar Western analysts trying to gauge the meaning of such strong statements.” The “jarring” or disconnect may occur because of a natural tendency on our part to hold a religious leader — who just happens to be the leader of a state — to a higher standard. The truth is, Ayatollah Khameini probably hedges and equivocates like any ruler. His disinclination to live up to the ethical and spiritual standards to which a religious leader ought to aspire shouldn’t serve as an excuse to avoid treating him and his people like statesmen and negotiating with them in good faith.