Did the White House play Find the Fatwa?

Barack Obama explained his personal-diplomacy strategy regarding Iran’s Hassan Rouhani in part as driven by signs of moderation in Tehran, and not just the election of Rouhani himself.  Specifically, Obama pointed to a fatwa issued by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini that forbid the development and use of nuclear weapons by the Islamic Republic:

Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic Republic will never develop a nuclear weapon.

Fatwa? What fatwa? Jeff Dunetz checked with the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) to find evidence of this announcement, as did Scott Johnson of Power Line.  If the top Iranian ayatollah had told his country to stop developing nuclear weapons, one would imagine that the state-run media would be proclaiming it from the rooftops to get an end to the sanctions crippling the nation.  Instead, MEMRI reported in April 2012 that the supposed fatwa never existed:

An exhaustive search of the various official websites of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei turned up no such fatwa, either on his fatwa website or on his personal website.

Khamenei’s websites post fatwas issued by him in response to questions submitted to him. Online submission of questions is an accepted and official means; all his websites offer readers options for doing so. Fatwas are issued by jurisprudents in standard question-and-answer format, and are published publicly in writing. They can also include the reasoning behind them, but not always. Today, fatwas are generally concise and limited to a yes or no answer – but always in question-and-answer form, including a summary by the jurisprudent, as follows: “I was asked a question on a certain matter. My answer is such and such.” This can be seen in the following.

On March 15, 2012, the following question on the possession and use of nuclear weapons and referring to the alleged fatwa was submitted to Supreme Leader Khamenei, via Facebook, by a group called The Light of Freedom (Cheragh-e Azadi): (for image, seeAppendix IV).[11]

“Q: Your Excellency has announced a ban on the use of nuclear weapons, and considering that nuclear weapons are a requirement for deterrence and that the aim of obtaining them is to intimidate the enemies in order to prevent them from acting aggressively, and in light of what is written in Surat Al-Anfal, Verse 60… is it also forbidden to obtain nuclear weapons, as per your ruling that their use is prohibited?

“A: Your letter has no jurisprudential aspect. When it has a jurisprudent position, then it will be possible to answer it.

“Summary: No answer was given.” 

This particular question and answer on Facebook do not appear on Khamenei’s fatwa website or on his personal website. It is notable that in his response he did not confirm, or even mention, any fatwa that he allegedly issued in the past – and that his summary notes that no response was given.

This question-and-answer format is mandatory for fatwas, so that any position on a particular religious question will be recognized as a fatwa. Even if the jurisprudent refers to an issue verbally, his words do not constitute a fatwa unless it is later issued in this format. Any expression of a position in any matter that is not issued in writing in the format of “I was asked a question on a certain matter. My answer is such and such…” isnot a fatwa and does not carry the religious significance of one; it is merely a statement.

On February 16, 2006, the Rooz website reported that Mohsen Gharavian, a disciple of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, had noted the existence of a fatwa stating that shari’a did not prohibit the use of nuclear weapons and, in fact, even calling for obtaining such weapons (see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1096, “Reformist Iranian Internet Daily: A New Fatwa States That Religious Law Does Not Forbid Use of Nuclear Weapons,” February 17, 2006 http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/1614.htm). The website reported that, for the first time, extremist clerics from Qom had issued what the daily called “a new fatwa,” which states that “shari’a does not forbid the use of nuclear weapons.”

MEMRI updated this last month with an exhaustive search through the fatwas published by the media arm of the Revolutionary Guards. It has plenty of declarations from Khameini, but the purported anti-nuke fatwa is conspicuously absent:

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. The conspicuous absence of such a fatwa by Khamenei from such a compilation confirms MEMRI’s argument that it does not exist; see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 825, Renewed Iran-West Nuclear Talks – Part II: Tehran Attempts to Deceive U.S. President Obama, Sec’y of State Clinton With Nonexistent Anti-Nuclear Weapons Fatwa By Supreme Leader Khamenei, April 19, 2013.

USA Today’s Oren Dorell also checked in with MEMRI and decided to ask the White House about this fatwa that changed America’s diplomatic posture with Iran.  The answer?  Trust us:

I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution (because) Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons,” Obama told reporters. …

But MEMRI says it appears the Iranians were not telling the truth, according to its president, Yigal Carmon.

“It’s a whole campaign,” Carmon said. “They cannot deliver anything real, so they deliver a story about the fatwa but they don’t really have it.”

Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for Obama’s National Security Council, said the president’s comment stands. When asked why the White House believes the fatwa exists, Hayden declined to comment.

NPR has reported on several occasions since 2003 where Khameini commented that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic, Dorell notes, and some experts say that fatwas don’t have to be written down to be valid.  That may be true, but if the list that MEMRI referenced in August is supposed to be comprehensive, it appears that Khameini and the IRGC don’t consider those comments to be fatwas themselves. Perhaps that should count in the calculations.

Condoleezza Rice says that we shouldn’t allow Rouhani to fool us on Iran’s intentions:

Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state, addressed recent efforts toward diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran, saying on “CBS This Morning,” the Iranians can’t be believed or trusted.

“They have done everything to make certain that you can’t trust them,” she said on “CBS This Morning.” “They hid their nuclear program for decades. They have given the international Atomic Energy Agency the runaround. I negotiated myself with the P5+1, the international negotiating team for them. You absolutely cannot trust them.”

We shouldn’t fool ourselves, either.

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