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April 30, 2015

Fatwa? What Fatwa? Does Ayatollah Khamenei's Edict Exist?

The Washington Post (“Kerry seeks to assure Arab states over Iran deal,�? March 6, 2015) casually referred to an unconfirmed religious ruling by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the all-powerful supreme leader of Iran may not have made. Khamenei purportedly issued a fatwa (an Islamic sharia law edict) against nuclear weapons, yet questions about both its very existence and potential meaning go unmentioned in the article.

It’s hard to tell what the supposed fatwa says because there is no hard evidence of its publication nor is a clear date given for its issuance. According to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) paper, the fatwa was first reported in October 2003 by Tehran after August 2002 revelations that Iran was secretly building a centrifuge enrichment facility in Natanz.

The WINEP report notes the ayatollah’s ability to alter or override fatwas and his shifting rhetoric with regard to earlier declarations. These reportedly condemned the creation of nuclear weapons, but more recent pronouncements explicitly ruled out only their use.

The existence of the edict seems to be entirely of a self-referential nature—it is asserted to exist but no written evidence supports the claim. This is unusual for an order of such importance, as the WINEP report notes.

The Post referred to the supposed fatwa almost in passing: “Iran insists it does not seek nuclear arms, which the country’s supreme leader has declared are forbidden by Islam, but wants the capacity to make nuclear fuel for reactors that produce energy and medical isotopes.�?

The Post’s article is not alone in claiming Khamenei declared nuclear weapons off-limits to Iran under Islamic rule. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on September 24, 2013 President Obama stated, “the Supreme Leader has
a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.�?

In November, 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry made a similar claim while in Geneva, Switzerland noting, “the Supreme Leader has indicated there is a fatwa, which forbids them to do this [acquire nuclear weapons].�?

Doubts about the fatwa’s existence recently appeared in an article by Andrew McCarthy (“The Khamenei Fatwa Hoax is absurd on its face,�? National Review, April 16). McCarthy says that disbelief is warranted since fatwas must be written and accessible to be authoritative and the Iranian has a regime history of lying and reversing religious edicts for political expediency.--Sean Durns

Posted by ER at April 30, 2015 02:52 PM


There is a thing about fatwas that most people don't know. Under the Usuli variety of Twelver (Ithna' 'Ashari) Shi'ism to which Iran subscriobes, a Mujtahid may issue a fatwa on whatever he chooses, and those who emulate him as a Marja' al-Taqlid (i.e. someone to be followed in all things) woll follow it, but those who follow a different marja' are not obliged to do so. Khamene'i is not a major figure within the clerical hierarchy (though he is Supremem Leader of the regie, a very different matter), and not many regard him as their marja'. However, something else applies, and that is that when a Mujtahid dies, his fatwas die with him. They can be replaced by a successor, but that is by no means certain, especially if circumstances have changed. Whereas the use of reasoning in religious and legal matters (ijtihad) is all but extinct in Sunnism, the Usuli form of Shi'ism is based precisely on the encouragement of it. So it doesn't matter in the end whether or not Khamene'i really did issue such a fatwa. First, he has little authority in religious affairs. Second, he is thought to be near death's door.

Posted by: Denis MacEoin at May 7, 2015 06:12 PM

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