Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has reminded the public about the Supreme Leader’s fatwa on nuclear weapons, but this does not mean that Iran cannot or will not develop them.
In a tweet on October 12, Zarif published Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa prohibiting the development, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. According to the fatwa, the Islamic Republic of Iran regards nuclear weapons as “immoral," says they “contravene Islamic principles,” and that it has no plans to develop them. The Supreme Leader has also stated this in several speeches.
In Islam, a fatwa is a formal ruling or interpretation on a point of Islamic law issued by a qualified legal scholar or a religious authority. In other words, it is an interpretation of the word of God. However, the international community does not regard Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa on the prohibition of nuclear weapons as a reliable guarantee that Iran will not build nuclear weapons.
The most important reason for the distrust is that a religious ruling is not unchangeable; it can be revised depending on the circumstances. In addition, Iran also follows a principle termed “the interests of the Islamic government” which, if need be, can be used to allow any action — even it goes against sharia and the constitution.
In addition to a fatwa being subject to change, not every Muslim is duty-bound to follow it. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is a recognized religious authority and the most powerful religious and political figure in Iran but, according to the tenets of the Shia faith, those who have not chosen him as their “source of emulation” (marja’) are not obligated to observe his religious rulings. In other words, Khamenei’s fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons is only incumbent upon those who have chosen him as their “source of emulation.”
It is of course possible that officials of the Islamic Republic take the Supreme Leader’s religious rulings as executive decrees that must be obeyed by all executives of the regime, regardless of whether Ayatollah Khamenei is their marja’ or not. But even then — again according to Shia tenets — his followers are only required to follow his fatwa while he is alive, and it is not binding beyond his life. His successor could have different views about nuclear arms.
In Shia Islam, when a Muslim is not aware of sharia laws regarding a certain issue or has doubts about it, he poses the question to his marja,’ or a religious authority and the response is defined as a fatwa. Within the structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran these questions and answers impact the functioning of the whole government.
The twist is that “sources of emulation” can have very different answers to the same question. While Ayatollah Khamenei has announced that nuclear weapons are prohibited by Islam, Pakistan, a neighboring Muslim country, has nuclear weapons and its religious leaders have never said that the development, the stockpiling and the use of nuclear weapons are against the tenets of Islam. It is not impossible that the next Supreme Leader of Iran will hold views similar to those of Pakistani religious authorities.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international authority on nuclear affairs, has announced that there is no evidence that Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons but, at the same time, it does not believe that Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa will stop Iran from doing so. Instead, it believes that constant surveillance and regular inspection are the most effective tools to ensure that the Iranian nuclear program will stay on a peaceful trajectory.
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