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It’s common knowledge that Iran’s "Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Khamenei, has issued a fatwa banning the possession of nuclear weapons.
This "fact" has recently been cited by President Obama and by Secretary of State Kerry. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, the President said
the Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.
This month, Secretary Kerry said "The supreme leader...says he has issued a fatwa, the highest form of Islamic prohibition against some activity, and he said that is to prohibit Iran from ever seeking a nuclear weapon. "
Moreover, in April, 2012 then Secretary of State Clinton said this: "The other interesting development which you may have followed was the repetition by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that they would – that he had issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, against weapons of mass destruction. Prime Minister Erdogan and I discussed this at some length, and I’ve discussed with a number of experts and religious scholars."
The existence of this fatwa is being used to suggest that Iran my well not be seeking nuclear weapons after all, and this fact would make a successful negotiation with Iran more likely.
The problem is, there is no such fatwa. At least, no one has ever seen it or produced it. A study by the web site MEMRI (full disclosure: I serve on its board) has found that no text of this alleged fatwa exists, nor is it present in any compilation of Khamenei’s fatwas. Khamenei has discussed possession of nuclear weapons in his speeches, especially in a 2004 sermon where he called production, possession, or use "problematic." But a speech is not a fatwa, which is a jurisprudential ruling-- and "problematic" is hardly a strong term announcing a prohibition. And the MEMRI analysis continues, "It should further be clarified that in the regime’s records of sermons by Khamenei, there is a clear differentiation between the jurisprudential ones – that is, the fatwas – and the political ones; the regime has placed this particular sermon in the political section, not the jurisprudential section, of the records."
An August report from MEMRI covers this topic again:
On July 30, 2013, the Iranian Tasnimnews website, which is close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), published a compilation of 493 of the "newest" fatwas issued by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. These fatwas cover a wide range of issues, from political and cultural to religious, and include such topics as the treatment of Baha’is, trade with Israeli companies, religious purity and uncleanness, the status of women, and more. MEMRI’s examination of the compilation shows that it also includes several previously released fatwas, dating back to 2004. It is notable that a much-discussed fatwa, which regime officials claim was issued by Khamenei and prohibits the development, possession, or use of a nuclear bomb, is not included in this compilation.So where is the fatwa? It is more than strange that, with the negotiations under way and the entire world focused on them, Iran has failed to produce a text. It is extremely unfortunate that our highest officials appear to take the existence of this fatwa for granted though none has ever seen it, read it, or had it analyzed by competent experts. Bad staff work, for sure; wishful thinking as well, trying to convince themselves that despite the evidence perhaps Iran really does not seek nuclear weapons after all. But here as always, wishful thinking is a dangerous basis for making national security policy.