By Andrea Stricker
February 12, 2021
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, stated this week that although Iran’s supreme leader forbade the building of nuclear weapons according to an Islamic edict known as a “fatwa,” Tehran might change course if provoked. Given that Iran had a nuclear weapons program from 1999 to 2003, parts of which continued covertly, Washington should not base its Iran policy on the durability of such a fatwa.
Alavi, speaking on Iranian state television, said, “Our nuclear program is peaceful and the fatwa by the supreme leader has forbidden nuclear weapons, but if they push Iran in that direction, then it wouldn’t be Iran’s fault but those who pushed it.” He added, “If a cat is cornered, it may show a kind of behavior that a free cat would not.”
In 2003, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allegedly prohibited building the bomb as contrary to Islamic law, although the regime has never released the text of this supposed ruling. Yet the Iranian government did put up a (now non-functioning) web page about the fatwa, explaining it grew out of an earlier anti-chemical weapons fatwa issued by Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (Khomeini reportedly reversed that fatwa during the Iran-Iraq War, and the United States currently assesses that Iran maintains a chemical weapons program).
Iranian leaders have often brought up the alleged nuclear fatwa when attempting to persuade foreign audiences that the regime has no ambitions to weaponize its atomic program. During the Iran nuclear negotiations, President Barack Obama and several U.S. officials even lent credence to the fatwa by referring to it as a reason for confidence in the eventual accord that emerged in 2015.
Yet the nuclear fatwa, if it even exists, is apparently quite flexible.
Western powers and the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have for many years investigated Tehran’s early nuclear weapons program, known as the Amad Plan. In 2018, Israel seized a cache of Iranian nuclear program documents from a Tehran warehouse. This “nuclear archive” provided new insights into the regime’s plans to manufacture and achieve the ability to test five atomic weapons by 2003.
Around the summer of 2003, the archive’s documents show, Iran’s defense ministry ordered officials to stop some of Amad’s most sensitive nuclear weaponization activities – particularly those involving large nuclear facilities and the use of nuclear material – but to hide, disguise, and continue others. Iran’s fissile material production efforts and some of its missile delivery work continued more openly.
According to nuclear expert David Albright, Iran’s efforts now position it to produce atomic weapons “on demand,” meaning that Tehran seeks the capability to make the bomb on very short order if the regime so decides.
In all likelihood, Khamenei’s supposed 2003 fatwa was merely an order to pause Iran’s nuclear weapons program due to growing international scrutiny. Alavi’s comment that Iran could shift course back to a dedicated effort to build nuclear weapons belies any notion that such an order is unchangeable. Given the number of times Western powers have caught the clerical regime prevaricating and lying about its nuclear program, and given that this mendacity also extends to terrorism, fatwas from Khamenei should not be viewed as canonically binding.
Alavi is a representative of the supreme leader, and his comments should therefore be taken seriously. They are part of Tehran’s ongoing effort to use advances in its nuclear program to coerce the Biden administration into rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal and quickly lifting sanctions. Alavi’s remarks are also an attempt to preemptively blame America if it “pushes” Iran toward atomic arms.
Washington should not fall for the Islamic Republic’s extortion. The United States should refrain from rejoining the expiring and flawed nuclear deal. Instead, President Joe Biden, together with his European partners, should insist on negotiations toward a better, more comprehensive accord for Tehran to receive sanctions relief. The Biden administration and European powers should also prioritize the IAEA’s investigation into undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities in Iran.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies