As Iran’s hardliners voice anger over the deal about to take shape in Vienna between the Islamic Republic’s nuclear negotiators and P5+1 country leaders, a similar battle is being fought on social media.
One of the most hostile debates has ignited around Ayatollah Khamenei’s alleged fatwa banning nuclear weapons, which has been cited on number of occasions, including by President Obama earlier this year and in September 2013. Some reports suggest the Leader spoke out against nuclear capability as far back as 2003, and point to an Iranian government website for corroboration.
Now, as the Vienna deal approaches, the fatwa is back in the limelight, especially for commentators with sympathy for the hardliner stance.
Speaking out on social networks, some commentators said the move was un-Islamic, while others argued that the Supreme Leader did not actually order the religious edict in the first place.
Google+ has been a popular platform for discussion and debate, leading to the establishment of the so-called Soft War Officers Club, which has called for Iran to ensure it properly protect itself against any perceived nuclear threat through building its own weapons capability.
“We cannot rule out that Saudi Arabia could secretly obtain nuclear weapons from Pakistan or some other hellhole,” wrote Tawhid Azizi, an Iranian student based in the US city of Burlington, Vermont. “And we cannot rule out that when Saudi Arabia kisses the dust in Syria and Yemen it will react by threatening Iran with a nuclear attack. In such a situation Iran would not be able to rebuild the uranium enrichment infrastructure that Iran itself has destroyed in time, even if it wants to. On that day, most Iranians will detest the sight of national security experts and the current [nuclear] negotiators.”
Azizi’s comments prompted a further string of comments and reactions. In particular, disgruntled Khamenei supporters took objection against the idea that the Supreme Leader had forbidden the “production” and “use” of nuclear weapons.
“When ‘production’ is forbidden, naturally there will be no move towards a ‘capability to produce’,” Azizi also wrote. “And even if there is such a move, losing [the capability to produce nuclear weapons] will now no longer constitute a ‘red line.’” For Azizi and others like him, the fatwa now amounted to a sacred understanding being violated. And his view of what should happen next was clear:
“I believe this fatwa was a mistake. I hope that Ayatollah Khamenei, or the next supreme leader, will correct it. Under Shia jurisprudence, a religious authority is allowed to declare that he has made a mistake or change his fatwa when new conditions demand it. It has happened before.”
“If atomic bombs can protect the lands of Shia Muslims from danger, then acquiring them is not only necessary, but also obligatory,” he went on. “In a world where the 5+1 countries, Israel, Pakistan, India and, soon enough, Saudi Arabia, own nukes, reason demands that Iran must retain the ‘capability’ of building nuclear weapons on short notice.”
Hardliner journalist Keyvan Ebrahimi agreed. “Using nuclear bombs is unquestionably against sharia,” he wrote, “but building and keeping them as deterrents is not only not against sharia but ... necessary, considering the current world situation. Of course, this is contrary to the Supreme Leader’s fatwa.”
“Why Saudi Arabia?” said another comment supporting Azizi’s view. “Have you forgotten that Obama threatened Iran with nukes? At that time they could not implement their threats because of the nuclear capabilities of Iran, but what about now? The American nuclear threat against Iran is serious and concrete, and the Americans need only to push a button.”
Unwavering Support for Khamenei
But as well as those who spoke out against the ayatollah’s fatwa, others chimed in to support him, suggesting that those critics were serving to destabilize the Islamic Republic’s entire value system. “If the fatwa was nothing more than a sham,” one person wrote, “Then the US and the West are right to be suspicious.”
“These critics are saying that you cannot count on what a Shia Faqih [religious authority] says, and that widespread inspections are necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” wrote another.
“You cannot travel the righteous path on corrupt feet,” wrote another critic of Azizi’s view. “If the US and other countries have used various weapons, including nuclear ones, to bully and dominate others — and of course it is not only dominance through weapons but also through the American economy, science and culture — this is not a reason for us to follow the same path. Most likely what we would get would be no better than what North Korea is getting.”
Some hardliners reacted angrily against those who questioned the views of Ayatollah Khamenei. Those who promoted such dissent were no better than “spies,” they said.
As criticisms against the outspoken Azizi mounted, the US-based student offered further explanation: “The Leader is not immune from making mistakes,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, I hold his views higher than my own. This is the meaning of imam [leader].”
“What I meant was concrete deterrence,” he explained further, “meaning having ready-to-launch weapons.”
“I agree,” another commentator posted. “Especially about being equipped with nukes. Of course, as a friend commented above, acquiring nuclear weapons for Iran is a very simple matter and would not take long.”
“At this moment, yes,” agreed Azizi, “But when they dismantle the centrifuges at Fordo, sharply limit the number of centrifuges at Natanz and the enrichment of uranium is kept below five percent, then the time for production will increase from six months to seven years. Seven years is enough time for the enemies of Iran to do whatever they want to do.”
“If you follow the Leader’s statement carefully,” wrote another person who supported Azizi’s claims, “You will see that he has never prohibited the capability of building atomic bombs (and in a way he has even approved it).”
“Each fatwa has exceptions,” he went on to say. "When the honor and the lands of Muslims depends on possessing certain powers — powers that in normal times are forbidden — then having them is allowed.”
The most recent debates and disagreements follow on from political debates on Google+ only days before, when hardliner MP Hamid Rasaei said if an “inadequate” nuclear agreement was reached, the government would be to blame, and not the Supreme Leader.
The arguments are typical of heated rows that began long before Iran’s negotiators first met with the P5+1 countries, some 18 months ago. And, as with so many matters in Iran and around the world, social networks provide the perfect environment for battle. The battle may be remote from the actual talks in Vienna, but it has an impact on how many Iranians shape their understanding of their country's place in the world.
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