Nor can he airily contradict himself, even though his fellow mullahs took the trouble to assemble a mechanism to allow him to. Consider the wonderfully named Expediency Council, designed to manage the tension inherent between a worldly parliament and the council of clerics who serve as a kind of religious supreme court. The same spirit of pragmatism allows the Leader all sorts of freedom. “Ayatollah Khomeini introduced a new reading according to which, for an Islamic state the first priority is to conserve and sustain itself,” says Mehrdad Mirdamadi, an Iranian-born analyst now working at Radio Free Europe. “To do so it can even suspend the shari’a law. This later became known as the expedience of the system principle, based on which the Expediency Council was formed.”
This means Iran could justify pursuing even “sinful” nuclear weapons if doing so was reckoned necessary to survival of the state — something Sick says the mullahs felt was indeed in question during the 1980s, when they secretly revived the Shah’s nuclear program and explored weaponization. (That narrative is the subject of a coming post). Publicly, however, the fatwa against nukes remained operative, and with it the opportunity for concerned foreign powers to engage the issue.
“I’m glad the US government has finally realized that that gives them a basis for starting negotiations,” says Sick. “We say, ‘Okay, we take you at your word, you don’t want to make nuclear weapons, and we want to have assurances that you’re not. So we’ve got something to talk about here.’”