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Iranian Minister: Khamenei’s Nuclear Fatwa Can Be Annulled If Necessary

February 9, 2021
Faramarz Davar
6 min read
In an interview with Iran's Channel Two on Monday night, Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi made two startling announcements
In an interview with Iran's Channel Two on Monday night, Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi made two startling announcements
The minister implied Ayatollah Khamenei's fatwa banning nuclear weapons in Iran could be overturned in extreme circumstances
The minister implied Ayatollah Khamenei's fatwa banning nuclear weapons in Iran could be overturned in extreme circumstances
He also claimed that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the nuclear scientist assassinated in Damavand last November, was killed by a member of the armed forces
He also claimed that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the nuclear scientist assassinated in Damavand last November, was killed by a member of the armed forces

For the first time, a senior government Iranian official has publicly stated that a fatwa by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, regarding the prohibition of the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons, might be up for reconsideration.

The current Minister of Intelligence of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Alavi, made the remarks during a televised interview on Iran’s Channel 2. He also went on to claim that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist killed on November 27 last year, was assassinated by a member of the armed forces.

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The remarks made by the Iranian intelligence minister on Monday night have caused a stir in Iran and further afield. In an interview with Channel 2 about the security situation in the country, he said on the matter of US sanctions: "Our nuclear industry is peaceful. The fatwa of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution has declared nuclear weapons are forbidden. But if they push the Islamic Republic of Iran in that direction, it would no longer be Iran's fault; rather, it would be the fault of those who have terrorized Iran.”

Alavi appeared to be suggesting that in extraordinary circumstances, an oral fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khamenei in the early 2000s could be overturned. By effectively criminalising nuclear weapons, the fatwa had given religious backing and legitimacy to the more limited nuclear exploits the country did continue to pursue.

How Inviolable is Khamenei’s Fatwa on Nuclear Weapons?

The fatwa was taken seriously by President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry during the Iran-US nuclear talks. Both spoke favorably about Iran’s right to uranium enrichment, and read the Supreme Leader’s edict as a guarantee that these activities would remain peaceful During the talks the three European signatories to the JCPOA, France, Britain and Germany, had proposed to the Islamic Republic that Khamenei's fatwa be turned into a binding internal law by the Iranian parliament. But the Iranian negotiators argued that such a law could be changed by another resolution at any time, while the fatwa, as a religious injunction, was sacrosanct.

They were only half-correct. A fatwa is understood to be the declaration of God's command by a senior enough jurist who, according to the Constitution, derives their sovereignty from religion. It can in principle be revised according to circumstances and "expediency": the supposed basis of all governance and decision-making in the Islamic Republic. This practically means that a small and powerful group in Iran, with Ayatollah Khamenei at the head, can enact or overturn any ruling they choose: even if it flies in the face of law and the Constitution.

In principle it is also not obligatory for all Muslims and Shiites to follow a fatwa. An order issued by Ayatollah Khamenei forbidding the development of nuclear weapons therefore – in principle – only imposes a commitment on those who consider him to be their source of emulation, and even then only for as long as he remains alive.

From the point of view of the agents and officials of the Islamic Republic, fatwas issued by Ayatollah Khamenei are binding decrees to be followed by all arms of government. But it does not have to be so, and fatwas have been overturned in the past. During the Iran-Iraq War, for instance, when Saddam Hussein's government targeted some of Iran's border towns with chemical weapons and Iran was preparing to respond in kind, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had told his then-Minister of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rafiqdoust, that "Islam opposes such weapons." After the end of the war officials of the Islamic Republic declared the remarks a fatwa banning the use of chemical weapons.

Despite this, Iran and in particular companies affiliated with the Ministry of Defense did not stop manufacturing chemical weapons, either before or after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. The Islamic Republic even handed Iran-made chemical weapons over to the government of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi when he was in conflict with Chad. The US State Department observes the Islamic Republic has continued to produce these weapons in recent years and, contrary to its international commitments, may be capable of manufacturing dual-use chemicals.

The various Shia sources of emulation and authorities who can issue fatwas also have divergent views on some issues. It is therefore possible that the next hypothetical Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic could overturn a fatwa by Khamenei.

Mahmoud Alavi's remarks about the potential reversal of the fatwa banning the manufacture, possession and use of nuclear weapons in Iran are, in sum, the most serious threat an official of the Islamic Republic has made since the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA. It could even spell the end of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

A New Narrative on the Killing of Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist

During his interview, Alavi also addressed the killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in the city of Absard, northeast Tehran, late last November. “The facilitator of the assassination,” he said, “was a member of the armed forces.”

The remarks came in the context of Alavi defending his ministry’s record. After the incident, people had taken to the streets chanting slogans against the ministry, which he conceded had been aware of a possible planned attempt on Fakhrizadeh’s life some days earlier. But, Alevi said, because Fakhrizadeh and the alleged “facilitator” were both members of the Armed Forces, “the Ministry of Intelligence was not allowed to conduct security operations”.

The minister, Alavi said, had asked the Armed Forces to nominate a representative to look into on the possibility of an upcoming attack on Fakhrizadeh. But the assassination took place, he said, before the Armed Forces had put someone in post. This is a brand new version of events.

Numerous divergent accounts of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination have been given by different officials. Previously Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral that the security and intelligence services had known the likely location of an attempt on Fakhrizadeh's life before it took place, but the “enemy” had used a new type of weapon to outsmart them.

Two days after Fakhrizadeh was killed, Fars News Agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guards, also wrote that no “human factor” had been involved in the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh but a remote-controlled shotgun installed on a blue Nissan had opened fire on the scientist and his bodyguards. Then Ramazan Sharif, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards, declared on December 6, 2020 that Fakhrizadeh had been assassinated by “satellite”, adding: "The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was carried out by satellite devices and in such a way that it cannot endanger our security."

The version of events attributed to Fakhrizadeh's wife was completely different. According to these reports,  Fakhrizadeh was in a car with his wife the bride and was at the wheel himself, while his bodyguards were in separate vehicles. Fakhrizadeh had allegedly got out of the car after two shots were fires, trying to get across to his guards, and was then hit in the shoulder. In this version of the incident, the defense team then threw themselves on Fakhrizadeh and four bullets were fired at them in turn, two of which passed through their bodies and hit Fakhrizadeh, before they retreated and Fakhrizadeh was shot to death.

Now, the Minister of Intelligence has announced that the perpetrator of the assassination was a member of the armed forces. But he did not give any suggestion as to which branch of the armed forces was responsible, nor whether this person had been identified.

Related coverage:

Khamenei Sets Impossible Conditions to Improve Relations with US

Nuclear Confrontation, Khamenei’s Gift to Iran

Why No One Takes Ayatollah Khamenei’s “Nuclear Fatwa” Seriously

Infighting Begins in Iran After Fakhrizadeh’s Assassination

IranWire Exclusive: Account of Scientist's Killing is "A Lie", Ex-Officials Claim

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