Monday, September 19, 2011

Nuclear Fatwa
Religion and Politics in Iran’s
Proliferation Strategy
Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji
Policy Focus #115 | September 2011

Nuclear Fatwa
Religion and Politics in Iran’s
Proliferation Strategy
Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji
Policy Focus #115 | September 2011
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in
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system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
© 2011 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Published in 2011 in the United States of America by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy,
1828 L Street NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20036.
Design by Daniel Kohan, Sensical Design and Communication
Front cover: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivering a speech on November 8, 2006, where he stated that
his country would continue to acquire nuclear technology and challenge “Western fabrications.” (AP Photo/ISNA, Morteza
About the Authors. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . v
Preface. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vii
Executive Sumary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ix
1. Religious Ideologies, Political Doctrines, and Nuclear Decisionmaking. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Michael Eisenstadt
2. Shiite Jurisprudence, Political Expediency, and Nuclear Weapons. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy v
About the Authors
Michael Eisenstadt is director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute. A specialist
in Persian Gulf and Arab-Israeli security affairs, he has published widely on irregular and conventional warfare
and nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. His recent publications include The Strategic Culture of
the Islamic Republic of Iran: Operational and Policy Implications (Marine Corps University, 2011), Iran’s Influence
in Iraq: Countering Tehran’s Whole-of-Government Approach with Michael Knights and Ahmed Ali (Washington
Institute, 2011), “Should I Stay or Should I Go? What the United States Can Leave Behind in Iraq” (Foreign
Affairs, 2010), and The Missing Lever: Information Activities against Iran (Washington Institute, 2010).
Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on the politics of Iran
and Shiite groups in the Middle East. Prior to his work at the Institute, he was a political analyst on Iranian affairs
for BBC Persian, and later became a broadcaster for the Prague-based Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A scholar of Islam, Mr. Khalaji trained in Shiite theology and jurisprudence for
fourteen years in the seminaries of Qom; he later studied Shiite theology and exegesis in Paris at L’Ecole Pratique
des Hautes Etudes. Author of The New Order of the Clerical Establishment in Iran (2010, in Farsi), he is currently
working on a political biography of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
n n n
The opinions expressed in this Policy Focus are those of the authors and not necessarily those of The Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, its Board of Trustees, or its Board of Advisors.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy vii
and deception, and considers how these factors have
been dealt with by the Expediency Council, which is
responsible for advising the Supreme Leader on matters
of national policy and resolving legislative issues.
The author demonstrates how decisions in the Islamic
Republic on these and other matters are grounded not
in Islamic law but rather in the regime’s doctrine of
expediency, as interpreted by the Supreme Leader.
Both essays conclude that if the Islamic Republic’s
leaders believe that developing, stockpiling, or using
nuclear weapons is in its interests, then religious considerations
will not constrain these actions. Past proclamations
about the matter, like all fatwas issued by
Shiite clerics, can be revised under new circumstances.
And while the Islamic Republic has repeatedly put
the interests of the regime ahead of religious principles,
the growing role played by the doctrines of resistance
and politicized messianic Shia Islam may well increase
the propensity of decisionmakers to act in an assertive
manner. Such assertiveness holds the attendant potential
for miscalculation and overreach, thereby complicating
efforts by the United States and its partners to
deter and contain a nuclear Iran.
—Patrick Clawson
Director of Research
The Washington Institute
The political doctrines and religious ideologies
of the Islamic Republic of Iran play a major
role in shaping the country’s approach to many issues,
including its nuclear program. The two essays in this
publication show how these factors are likely to inform
Iranian nuclear decisionmaking.
Michael Eisenstadt’s essay examines the regime’s
doctrine of expediency, which has guided Iranian decisionmaking
since the mid-to-late 1980s. He highlights
the growing tension between this doctrine, which has
generally led the Islamic Republic to act in a circumspect
manner while pursuing an anti–status quo foreign
policy, and the increasingly influential but less flexible
doctrines of resistance (embraced by a new generation
of hardline Iranian politicians) and politicized messianic
Shia Islam (embraced by President Mahmoud
Ahmadinezhad and some of his supporters) as applied
to Iranian behavior and nuclear decisionmaking.
Mehdi Khalaji’s essay looks at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s
fatwa proscribing the development, stockpiling,
and use of nuclear weapons, against the background of
traditional Islamic attitudes toward weapons of mass
destruction and Shiite attitudes toward dissimulation

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy ix
Executive Summary
likely to kill women, children, and the elderly. Nevertheless,
a significant countervailing tradition permits
the use of any means to cow and intimidate nonbelievers
or to prevail over them in warfare.
Moreover, fatwas are issued in response to specific
circumstances and can be altered in response to changing
conditions. Ayatollah Khomeini modified his position
on a number of issues during his lifetime—for
instance, on taxes, military conscription, women’s suffrage,
and monarchy as a form of government. Thus
nothing would prevent Khamenei from modifying or
supplanting his nuclear fatwa should circumstances
dictate a change in policy.
Shiite tradition permits deception and dissimulation
in matters of life and death, and when such tactics
serve the interests of the Islamic umma (community).
Such considerations have almost certainly shaped
Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, though it should be kept in
mind that nearly every proliferator has also engaged in
deception to conceal its nuclear activities.
Decisionmaking in the
Islamic Republic
Before he died, Ayatollah Khomeini affirmed the
Islamic Republic’s authority to destroy a mosque or
suspend the observance of the Five Pillars of Islam if
such measures were rendered necessary by the “expediency”
or “interests” of the regime. Thus, Khomeini
formalized the supremacy of raison d’etat over the
tenets of Islam as the core principle guiding domestic
and foreign policy decisionmaking in Iran. The
regime’s principle of expediency elevates the survival
of the Islamic Republic to a supreme religious value,
since only by this means can revolutionary Islam triumph.
It then becomes a justification for the often
extreme means used by the regime to stay in power.
The Expediency Council was created in 1988 to
mediate between the parliament (Majlis) and Guardian
Council regarding legislation and constitutional
issues, and to advise the Supreme Leader on matters
Because it is a theocracy, understanding the
role of religion in politics in the Islamic Republic is
fundamental to any attempt to assess the implications
of Iran’s nuclear program. Most assessments,
however, overlook this factor. Any effort to craft an
effective policy toward Iran’s nuclear program must
examine the religious values, beliefs, and doctrines
that inform and shape politics in the Islamic Republic,
and that are likely to decisively influence Iran’s
nuclear decisionmaking.
Islam and Nuclear Weapons
Despite significant circumstantial evidence that Iran is
pursuing the means to produce nuclear weapons, skeptics
point to Tehran’s claims that the Islamic Republic
does not seek the bomb because Islam bans weapons of
mass destruction (WMD).
During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq made frequent battlefield
use of chemical weapons. Iran did not respond
in kind because it lacked the ability at the time to do
so, and because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini apparently
considered chemical weapons to be prohibited
by Islam. Khomeini reportedly reversed his stance
toward the end of the war amid fears that Iraq was preparing
to use chemical weapons against Iranian cities.
Iran is believed to have eventually developed a limited
chemical-warfare capability for deterrence purposes,
although there is no evidence that it actually used
chemical agents or munitions during the war.
In October 2003, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
issued an oral fatwa forbidding the production and
use of WMD in any form. Since then, Khamenei and
other officials have repeatedly asserted that Iran is
not seeking to acquire the bomb because Islam bans
WMD—although Khamenei’s more recent statements
have been ambiguous with regard to the development
and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa is consistent with a corpus
of rulings in Islamic tradition that prohibit weapons
that are indiscriminate in their effects and therefore
x Policy Focus #115
(which resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Shiite
Afghan Hazaras and the murder of eight Iranian diplomats
and a journalist), the 2006 war between Israel
and Hizballah, and the 2011 crackdown on Shiite protestors
in Bahrain, Iran left beleaguered Shiite communities
to their fates rather than enter into potentially
costly foreign adventures. Since the late 1980s, the
principle of expediency has generally been interpreted
to ensure that the Islamic Republic’s anti–status quo
agenda was implemented with relative circumspection—
although there have been notable exceptions,
such as the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.
It is not clear how Iran’s growing nuclear potential
might alter Iranian decisionmaking, though former
president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s 2001 musings
about the catastrophic consequences for Israel of a single
nuclear explosion provide reason for concern. And
the Islamic Republic’s efforts in recent years to inculcate
a culture of resistance, along with the strengthening
of political Mahdism in Iranian politics, raise additional
concerns that a new generation of hardliners
may be more inclined to risktaking, and less inclined
to prudence and caution, than their predecessors.
The New Hardliners and the
Resistance Doctrine
In recent years, the Supreme Leader has encouraged
the emergence of a new generation of largely nonclerical,
ideologically hardline politicians and military
officials who yearn for a return to the values of
the 1979 Islamic Revolution and who embrace the
regime’s doctrine of resistance. Some, including President
Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, subscribe to a version
of Shia Islam that assigns central importance to
hastening the reappearance of the hidden Twelfth
Imam. The promotion of such leaders has been expedited
by the purge of reformists as well as pragmatic
conservative politicians and officials in the wake of
the contested June 2009 election.
Iran’s new hardliners tend to be more insular in
outlook than their predecessors—at least some of the
revolution’s founding generation lived and studied
abroad before the revolution. Moreover, their defiant,
confrontational style has already aggravated tensions
pertaining to discernment of regime expediency. The
council’s authorities are outlined in Iran’s 1989 constitution,
which stipulates that if parliament passes a law
that the Guardian Council deems un-Islamic or unconstitutional,
the Expediency Council will advise the
Supreme Leader as to whether the law is in the interest
of the regime. Legislation, therefore, is not necessarily
grounded in Islamic law, but rather in regime expediency—
as defined by the Supreme Leader, who may
intervene in the functioning of the system as he sees fit
in order to secure this objective.
Thus, the Supreme Leader also has the final say on
nuclear decisionmaking. He is not constrained by his
previous fatwas, which he can alter or reverse, or the
opinions of other mujtahids (Islamic jurists). And if
he believes that expediency calls for the acquisition,
deployment, or use of nuclear weapons, religious principles
would not prevent the Islamic Republic from
doing so. Iranian decisionmaking, therefore, bears to
an extraordinary extent the imprint of one man’s personality
and politics—unaffected by the will of other
men, the decisions of other institutions, or even the
moral scruples of religion.
Is Iran Deterrable?
Because Shiite religious doctrine exalts the suffering
and martyrdom of the faithful, Iran is sometimes portrayed
as an irrational state with a high pain threshold,
driven by the absolute imperatives of religion rather
than by the pragmatic concerns of statecraft.
This perception, however, is anachronistic at best.
In the context of Tehran’s relatively activist, anti–status
quo foreign policy, Iranian decisionmakers have generally
sought to minimize risk by shunning direct confrontation
and acting through proxies (such as Lebanese
Hizballah) or indirect means in order to preserve
deniability. Such behavior reflects an ability to engage
in rational calculation and accurately assess power
Tehran’s cautious behavior during past crises is
the best proof that post-Khomeini Iran has generally
sought to avoid direct involvement in potentially costly
conflicts. Thus, in the 1991 Shiite uprising in Iraq, the
1998 Taliban capture of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan
Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy xi
Executive Summary Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji
Apocalyptic Thinking and
Nuclear Weapons
Since the 2005 election of President Mahmoud
Ahmadinezhad, much speculation has surrounded the
question of whether he or some of his political allies
adhere to an apocalyptic version of Shia Islam that
could someday prompt Iran to unleash a nuclear strike
against Israel or the United States in order to hasten
the reappearance of the Mahdi and usher in the Shiite
messianic era. While some students of Shia Islam
consider such concerns overblown, others take them
quite seriously.
Twelver Shia Islam has given rise to three broad
approaches to the role of human agency in the reappearance
of the Mahdi:
■■The traditional, conservative quietist approach calls
for the faithful to patiently await the reappearance
of the Mahdi while engaging in prayer and acts
of piety.
■■The revolutionary activist approach calls on believers
to create an Islamic government in order to combat
religious corruption and injustice, and to fight
on behalf of the downtrodden in Iran, Palestine,
and elsewhere.
■■The violent apocalyptic approach, which is followed
by small, marginal splinter groups in Iran and elsewhere,
embraces the use of nihilistic violence.
President Ahmadinezhad’s religious worldview falls
broadly within the activist tradition, though his politicization
of the cult of the Mahdi and some of his more
extravagant claims place him on its fringes. His belief
in the Mahdi’s impending arrival may account for his
single-minded commitment to hardline policies, to
fighting for the downtrodden, and to promoting the
Palestinian cause. This mindset carries with it, however,
the potential for miscalculation or overreach born
of the belief that the impending reappearance of the
Mahdi relieves decisionmakers of responsibility for illconceived
or reckless policies, since the Mahdi will set
things right when he reappears.
with the United States and the international community.
Yet much remains to be learned about this group’s
worldview. Many of these hardliners have roots in, or
ties to, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which
controls Iran’s ballistic missiles and oversees its WMD
programs. Regardless of President Ahmadinezhad’s
political fortunes, these hardliners will likely play a key
role in Iranian nuclear decisionmaking.
Loyal to the Supreme Leader, the new generation
of hardliners is not accountable to any of Iran’s elected
institutions. Moreover, it has a narrow but committed
base of support in Iranian society and takes an unwavering
approach to the regime’s opponents at home and
abroad. For this reason, Iran’s current leadership may
feel less constrained by domestic and international
opinion in charting a foreign policy course. Moreover,
under certain circumstances, some of these leaders
might welcome a limited conflict with the United
States—to bolster flagging domestic support for the
regime and revive the values of the revolution. Such
attitudes might increase the regime’s tolerance for foreign
risk-taking and complicate efforts to establish a
stable deterrent relationship with a nuclear Iran.
Finally, these hardliners are committed to implementing
the Islamic Republic’s activist credo of fighting
injustice and oppression abroad. They have taken heart
from the apparent success of the resistance doctrine in
Lebanon (with the withdrawal of Israeli forces in 2000)
and in Gaza (with the rise of Hamas), as well as the
slow but steady progress of Iran’s nuclear and missile
programs. They believe that Iran is a rising power, the
United States is a power in decline, and that Israel’s days
are numbered. The Shiite vision of the triumph of the
downtrodden and long-suffering community of believers
seems to be unfolding before their very eyes.
Believing that God and history are on their side,
might Iran’s current leaders be tempted to hasten the
process of American “decline” by providing nuclear
technology or weapons to states, or nonstate actors,
that likewise seek to undermine and constrain U.S.
power? The ambitions of Iran’s leaders and the history
of nuclear proliferation provide reason for concern;
nearly every nuclear proliferator has shared its nuclear
know-how and helped other states obtain the bomb.
xii Policy Focus #115
Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
dominated. As a result, the regime’s ambitious, anti–
status quo agenda was implemented in a way that minimized
risk and emphasized prudence and caution. In
recent years, however, the perceived successes of the
resistance doctrine in Lebanon and Gaza, the strengthening
of political Mahdism in Iranian politics since
Ahmadinezhad’s 2005 election, and the failure of the
international community to halt Iran’s nuclear program
have produced a more assertive regime that may
be more inclined to take risks. The dangers associated
with such an outcome are likely to be compounded by
the narrowing of the regime’s political base as a result
of the purges that followed the June 2009 elections,
the insularity of the regime’s current hardline leadership
and its lack of responsiveness to domestic and
international opinion, and a history of indulging radicals
who engage in rogue actions—factors that are apt
to complicate efforts by the United States and its allies
to deter and contain a nuclear Iran.
The possibility that an apocalyptic cult could
someday emerge within the military or IRGC and
gain control over a nuclear device or weapon, which
it might then use to advance its agenda, is probably
exceedingly slim. But given the ambiance of messianic
expectation in some circles in Iran, the possibility
cannot be dismissed out of hand, either. While
such groups seem more preoccupied with eliminating
the enemies of Islam than with their own martyrdom,
there is a danger that such a group might act against
these enemies without due consideration of the consequences
for Iran.
From the Islamic Republic’s inception, its decisionmaking
has been shaped by tension between the traditional
tenets of Shia Islam and the pragmatic concerns
of statecraft. Since the late 1980s, the latter orientation,
as expressed by the doctrine of expediency, has
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 1
1 | Religious Ideologies, Political Doctrines,
and Iran’s Nuclear Decisionmaking
Michael Eisenstadt
During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq made frequent battlefield
use of chemical weapons (CW). Iran is believed to
have not responded in kind because it lacked the ability
at the time to do so, and because Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini reportedly considered CW to be proscribed
by Islam. Khomeini is said to have reversed his stance
toward the end of the war amid fears that Iraq was preparing
to use CW against Iranian cities.6 While Iran is
believed to have developed, by the end of the war, a limited
CW capability for deterrence purposes, there is no
evidence that it actually used chemical agents or munitions.
7 Iran did fire more than 450 highly inaccurate
rockets and missiles against Iraqi cities during the war,
killing and wounding more than a thousand civilians,
though for whatever reason, these weapons were apparently
not covered by a religious ban.
More than a decade later, following revelations in
August 2002 that Iran was building a clandestine centrifuge
enrichment facility at Natanz, Supreme Leader
Ali Khamenei reportedly issued a fatwa in October
2003 forbidding the “production” and “use” of WMD
“in any form.”8 Since then, Khamenei and various
government spokesmen have asserted repeatedly that
Iran is not seeking to acquire the bomb because Islam
proscribes nuclear weapons and other WMD.9 Thus,
in an August 2005 letter to the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran apparently referred to the
Khamenei fatwa in stating that “the production, stockpiling,
and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under
Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never
acquire these weapons.”10 Subsequently, in a speech to
the Tehran International Conference on Disarmament
and Non-Proliferation, Khamenei acknowledged the
“perils of producing and stockpiling…nuclear weapons,”
though he seemed to imply that only “the use
of these weapons [was] illegal and haram [forbidden
under Islamic law].”11 Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa raises
the question of whether the tenets of Islam prevent the
Islamic Republic from acquiring the bomb, thereby
B e c au se t h e Is l a m i c R e p u b l i c o f
Iran is a theocracy, religion plays a central role in
its politics. Understanding this is fundamental
to assessing Iranian intentions, anticipating future Iranian
moves, and formulating an effective policy for
dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Most analyses,
however, pay insufficient attention to the role of religion
in Iranian decisionmaking.
Thus, while several recent U.S. intelligence assessments
state that Tehran’s nuclear decisionmaking
is guided by a “cost-benefit approach,”1 they fail to
address the values and beliefs that inform this calculus.
Likewise, a review of several recent works on
Iran’s nuclear program reveals that they generally
avoided touching on the role of religion, emphasizing
instead a variety of other domestic and external
These analyses overlook the very factor that is most
important to understanding contemporary Iranian
politics. Any attempt to assess the implications of Iran’s
nuclear program must examine the religious values,
beliefs, and doctrines that inform and shape politics in
the Islamic Republic, and that are likely to decisively
influence Iranian nuclear decisionmaking.
Shiite Islam: Constraint
or Justification?
There is broad consensus among proliferation analysts
that Iran is pursuing the capabilities needed to produce
nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, skeptics point to
official Iranian claims that the Islamic Republic does
not seek the bomb because Islam bans weapons of
mass destruction (WMD).3 According to some Shiite
religious authorities, Islam proscribes WMD because
such weapons are indiscriminate in their effects and
are likely to kill women, children, and the elderly.4
The implication is that because the Islamic Republic
is a theocracy, its formal religious claims should be
taken seriously.5
2 Policy Focus #115
Michael Eisenstadt Nuclear Fatwa
routinely invoked to justify decisions at the highest
level of the government, as well as the actions of the
regime’s foot soldiers.15
Thus, for those who embrace the regime’s ideology,
the survival of the Islamic Republic is the ultimate
religious value. In this way, the extreme means often
employed by the regime can be justified by a sacred
end—the preservation of the Islamic Republic—since
only the regime’s survival can ensure the spread of
revolutionary Islam. By this logic, then, religious prohibitions
would not prevent the Islamic Republic from
acquiring or even using nuclear weapons if the regime’s
leadership believed that these actions served its vital
interests. Mehdi Khalaji’s chapter discusses this idea in
greater detail.
Is Iran Deterrable?
Because Shiite religious doctrine exalts the suffering
and martyrdom of the faithful, Iran is sometimes portrayed
as an irrational state with a high pain threshold,
driven by the absolute imperatives of religion rather
than by the pragmatic concerns of statecraft. Iranian
officials have frequently sought to cultivate this image
of Iran as a fanatical foe whose soldiers seek martyrdom
and whose society is willing and able to absorb
heavy punishment in order to strengthen its deterrence.
Thus, according to Iran’s former army chief of
staff Maj. Gen. Ali Shahbazi:
[Though] the United States or some country incited
by it may be able to begin a military conflict . . . it will
not be strong enough to end it. This is because only
Muslims believe that “whether we kill or are killed, we
are the victors.” Others do not think this way.16
In the heady, optimistic early days of the 1979
Islamic Revolution, Iranian society did indeed have
a relatively high threshold for pain. During the first
years of its war with Iraq, Tehran was willing to
endure hardships, make great sacrifices, and incur
heavy losses in support of the war effort—eschewing
the opportunity for a ceasefire in 1982 to pursue the
overthrow of the Baath regime in Baghdad and the
export of the revolution throughout the rest of the
region. But as the war dragged on, popular support
waned. The population had become demoralized
rendering moot the entire discussion about Iran’s
nuclear program.
The context surrounding the original, rather
expansive, nuclear fatwa and subsequent formulations
that only prohibit the use of nuclear weapons demonstrates
an important point: fatwas arise in response
to specific circumstances and can be amended or
reversed as circumstances change. Khamenei’s original
fatwa was probably issued to deflect international
pressure following the revelations regarding the
Natanz centrifuge enrichment plant, and in response
to concerns that after invading Iraq, the United States
might invade Iran. Fatwas are not immutable, and no
religious principle would prevent Khamenei from
modifying or supplanting his initial fatwa if circumstances
were to change.12
It is worth noting that another leading cleric,
Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who at
various times has advised and mentored President
Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, has claimed that Iran has
a right to “special weapons” that other countries currently
possess—a circumlocution regarded by many
as a reference to nuclear weapons.13 Mesbah-Yazdi’s
opinion, however, does not carry the same weight
as Khamenei’s; the Supreme Leader’s legal opinions
serve as the only valid source of government policy in
the Islamic Republic. Still, his stance underscores the
diversity of opinion on this matter among pro-regime
mujtahids (Islamic jurists).
Paradoxically, policy decisions in Iran are grounded
first and foremost on the principle of raison d’etat and
only secondarily on the tenets of Shia Islam. Ayatollah
Khomeini set down this principle in a series of letters
in December 1987 and January 1988 to then president
Khamenei and the Council of Guardians. In these, he
affirmed the Islamic Republic’s authority to destroy a
mosque or suspend the observance of the Five Pillars
of Islam (the profession of faith, prayer, fasting, almsgiving,
and the Hajj) if the expediency/interest of the
regime (maslahat) so required.14
In setting this precedent, Khomeini formalized the
supremacy of raison d’etat over the tenets of Islam as
the core principle guiding domestic and foreign policymaking
in the Islamic Republic. This principle is
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 3
Iran’s Nuclear Decisionmaking Michael Eisenstadt
avenge the first one, while preventing a third strike
against us.18
Tehran’s cautious behavior during past crises is the best
proof that post-Khomeini Iran has generally sought
to avoid direct involvement in potentially costly conflicts.
Thus, during the 1991 Shiite uprising in Iraq, the
1998 Taliban capture of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan
(which resulted in not only the slaughter of thousands
of Shiite Afghan Hazaras but also the murder of eight
Iranian diplomats and a journalist), the 2006 war
between Israel and Hizballah, and the 2011 crackdown
on Shiite protestors in Bahrain, Iran abandoned beleaguered
Shiite communities to their fates rather than
entering into potentially costly foreign adventures.
Likewise, in November 2003, the regime temporarily
suspended uranium enrichment when it believed that
failure to do so might prompt a U.S. invasion, and in
2010 it reneged on a public commitment to send a naval
aid flotilla to Gaza when Israel apparently warned that
such an action would be treated as an act of war. In all
these cases, the Islamic Republic showed its sensitivity
to risks and costs, even though, in several of these episodes,
a “war party” had called for intervention.19 These
examples show that since the late 1980s, the regime’s
principle of expediency has generally been interpreted
in such as way as to permit the implementation of the
Islamic Republic’s anti–status quo agenda in a relatively
cautious, circumspect manner.
Tehran, however, has not always acted with prudence,
and it has sometimes miscalculated or overreached.
Thus, in 1982, following the withdrawal of
Iraqi forces from Iran, Tehran rejected a ceasefire,
resulting in six more years of bloodletting. Then, in
1996, it sponsored the bombing of the Khobar Towers
housing complex in Saudi Arabia (killing nineteen
U.S. airmen) and avoided being targeted for retaliation
only due to U.S. restraint. And its bungling of the contested
June 2009 elections reinvigorated a moribund
domestic reform movement.
It is not clear how the acquisition of nuclear weapons
might alter the logic underpinning Iranian decisionmaking.
It would seem that the doctrine of expediency
would constrain reckless acts that could prompt
nuclear retaliation against the Islamic Republic. After
and wearied by years of inconclusive fighting ,
making the enlistment of volunteers for the front
increasingly difficult. Furthermore, many clerics had
concluded that the war was unwinnable.17 Ayatollah
Khomeini’s decision in 1988 to accept a ceasefire
with Iraq, and to thereby renege on his previous vow
to wage “war, war until victory,” demonstrated that
after nearly a decade of revolution and war, Tehran
had become increasingly sensitive to costs. This was
no longer, as Khomeini was fond of saying, “a nation
of martyrs.”
Khomeini was probably the only figure with the
charisma and moral authority to inspire the Iranian
people to sustain the level of sacrifice required to continue
the war for eight years. The double blow embodied
by the unsuccessful conclusion of the war in August
1988 and the death of Khomeini in June 1989 marked
the end of the decade of revolutionary radicalism in
Iranian politics. Iran was no longer willing to absorb
casualties and bear costs, and it had become much
more risk averse; in this regard, it had become a much
more “normal” state.
Thus, the perception of Iran as an irrational state
that is bent on martyrdom is anachronistic at best.
While actively pursuing anti–status quo foreign policy
objectives, its leaders have generally sought to minimize
risk by shunning direct confrontation and acting
through proxies (such as Lebanese Hizballah) or by
means of stealth (such as Iranian small boat and mine
operations against Gulf shipping during the Iran-Iraq
War), in order to preserve deniability and create ambiguity
regarding its involvement in hostile acts. Such
behavior reflects an ability to engage in rational calculation
and to accurately assess power relationships.
Moreover, despite the frequent resort to religious
imagery in speeches and interviews, Iranian officials
tend to employ the language of deterrence as spoken
and understood in the United States. Thus, shortly
after the first test launch of the Shahab-3 missile in July
1998, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani explained that
in order to bolster Iran’s deterrent capability:
We have prepared ourselves to absorb the first strike so
that it inflicts the least damage on us. We have, however,
prepared a second strike which can decisively
4 Policy Focus #115
Michael Eisenstadt Nuclear Fatwa
the purge of both reformist and pragmatic conservative
politicians and officials in the wake of the contested
June 2009 election. President Ahmadinezhad is
the most prominent of these hardliners, though recent
tensions with the Supreme Leader have raised questions
about his political future. Other key members of
this group include Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi,
IRGC commander Muhammad Jafari, Minister of
Intelligence Heydar Moslehi, Minister of Interior
Mostafa Najjar, Prosecutor-General Gholam Hossein
Mohseni Ejei, former IRGC–Qods Force commander
Qasem Soleimani, IRGC intelligence chief Hojjat al-
Eslam Hossein Taeb, and IRGC-Navy chief Ali Fadavi.
This group tends to be less well informed and more
suspicious of the outside world than even their predecessors.
(At least some of the revolution’s founding
generation lived and studied abroad prior to the revolution.)
Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, who
was detained by IRGC intelligence for nearly four
months after the June 2009 election, was afforded a
unique, close-up look at this new generation of hardliners.
According to Bahari:
[Their] rampaging paranoias have suffused the
regime. There remain players within the system who
can make rational decisions about Iran’s international
interests; if there weren’t, I would still be in jail. But
the Guards are exacerbating the Islamic Republic’s
worst instincts, its insecurity and deep suspiciousness.
As world powers try to engage Tehran to mitigate the
threat of its nuclear program, it’s critical that they
understand this mindset and the role the IRGC now
plays within the Iranian system.23
The doctrine of resistance embraced by this new generation
is rooted in the belief that conflicts with the
regime’s enemies are a zero-sum game, that compromise
is a sign of weakness, and that adherence to the
revolutionary principles of the Islamic Republic is a
sign of moral commitment. Efforts to indoctrinate the
military and security forces and the general population
with the culture of resistance are rooted in a desire
to create a society that is energized and strengthened,
not demoralized and weakened, by protracted conflict.
The resistance doctrine as practiced by the Islamic
Republic (as well as by Hizballah, Hamas, and Syria) is
founded on the assumption that one achieves victory
all, Iran’s leadership and the regime’s brand of revolutionary
Islam will not survive if the Islamic Republic
does not survive. However, former president Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani, who now heads the Expediency
Council, stated in a December 2001 speech:
If one day the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons
like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’
strategy will reach a standstill because the use of
even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.
However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It
is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.20
Whether Rafsanjani was engaging in idle talk or
expressing a reasoned opinion is unclear. Either way,
the fact that a pragmatic conservative politician
responsible for advising the Supreme Leader on the
regime’s expediency can make such a statement raises
questions about the regime’s sobriety when it comes
to nuclear weapons and Israel.21 Moreover, the Islamic
Republic’s efforts in recent years to inculcate a culture
of resistance (moqavemat) that pushes boundaries
and does not yield on matters of principle, along with
an upsurge in Mahdist (messianic) devotion in some
regime circles, raises additional concerns that Iranian
decisionmakers might be more willing to accept risk,
and less inclined to act with prudence and caution,
than in the past.
The Resistance Doctrine
In response to the emergence of the reform movement
in the 1990s, the Supreme Leader encouraged
the emergence of a new generation of ideologically
hardline politicians and military officials, who
long for a return to the values of the revolution and
embrace the regime’s doctrine of resistance. Many of
these individuals are veterans of the Iran-Iraq War
who have ties to the Basij militia or the Revolutionary
Guards. Some (such as President Ahmadinezhad)
apparently also subscribe to a version of Shia
Islam that assigns central importance to hastening
the reappearance of the hidden Twelfth Imam by
fighting heresy (the Bahai faith), injustice (Israel),
and global arrogance (the United States).22
The rise to prominence of this new generation of
largely nonclerical hardliners has been expedited by
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 5
Iran’s Nuclear Decisionmaking Michael Eisenstadt
radical agenda. Thus, the “Muslim Students Following
the Line of the Imam” seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran
in November 1979 without Ayatollah Khomeini’s
approval in order to undermine efforts by the provisional
government to reestablish normal relations with
the United States. (Khomeini provided his blessing
after the fact.) Many of the young hostage-takers went
on to become prominent officials in the Islamic Republic.
26 Likewise, the commander of an IRGC-Navy unit
that, in March 2007, detained fifteen Royal Navy sailors
and marines in disputed waters in the Shatt al-Arab
without Tehran’s authorization, was lauded and decorated
when the episode ended with the humbling of
the United Kingdom.27
While Supreme Leader Khamenei retains ultimate
decisionmaking authority, President Ahmadinezhad
has succeeded in setting the tone of Iran’s policies in
numerous domains—particularly that of foreign policy.
Here, the worldviews of the two leaders appear
to converge—notwithstanding significant differences
between the two in other areas.28 Even if Ahmadinezhad
leaves the political scene as a result of tensions
with Khamenei, the narrowing of the regime’s political
base following the 2009 post-election crackdown and
purge suggests that the views of his successor are not
likely to diverge much from those of Ahmadinezhad
himself—though the new president is certain to be
someone who will be more deferential to the Supreme
Leader (at least initially).
Both Khamenei and Ahmadinezhad are committed
to implementing the Islamic Republic’s activist
credo of fighting injustice and oppression in the foreign
policy arena, and they have taken heart from the
apparent success of the resistance doctrine in Lebanon
(with the withdrawal of Israeli forces in 2000) and in
Gaza (with the rise of Hamas in 2006), as well as the
slow but steady progress of Iran’s nuclear and missile
programs. They believe that Israel’s growing isolation is
the manifestation of a long-term historical process that
will lead to the demise of the Jewish state, while the
crumbling of the international order that has underpinned
U.S. power since World War II is a sign that
the United States is an empire at “the end of its road.”29
In response, they have expressed their commitment to
by demoralizing one’s enemies—through terrorizing
enemy civilians, bleeding enemy armies, and denying
them battlefield victories.24
The defiant, confrontational style of this new generation
of hardliners has already heightened tensions
with the United States and the international community.
Understanding the mindset of this group is critical
because the IRGC controls Iran’s ballistic missiles,
oversees its nuclear program, and serves as the regime’s
main point of contact for Hizballah and other foreign
militant groups, and it will likely play a key role in Iranian
nuclear decisionmaking.
Loyal only to the Supreme Leader, these hardliners
are not accountable to any of Iran’s elected institutions.
Moreover, they have a relatively narrow but very
committed domestic political constituency, and take
an unforgiving approach to the regime’s political opponents
at home and its enemies abroad. Thus, they are less
responsive to domestic and international opinion than
were their predecessors, since they believe that broad
segments of Iran’s population have abandoned the ideology
of the revolution and, by embracing foreign (i.e.,
Western) values and ways of thinking, have betrayed
their religion and nation. For this reason, they may feel
less constrained by public opinion in arguing their foreign
policy preferences.
Furthermore, while some of Iran’s leaders may well
be content to continue down the country’s current
path—pursuing a slow-motion clandestine nuclear
breakout, stoking Arab-Israeli tensions in Gaza or
Lebanon, and building ties to anti–status quo forces
in the Middle East and beyond—others might want
Iran to pursue an overt nuclear breakout25 and might
welcome, under certain circumstances, a limited conflict
with the United States in order to bolster flagging
domestic support for the regime (by spurring a
nationalist backlash and a rally-round-the-flag effect)
and to revive the values of the revolution. This mindset
may well increase the regime’s tolerance for risktaking
behavior and complicate efforts to establish a stable
deterrent relationship with Iran.
This risk is compounded by the Islamic Republic’s
history of rewarding rogues who have sought to force
the hand of the regime in order to promote a more
6 Policy Focus #115
Michael Eisenstadt Nuclear Fatwa
■■The revolutionary activist approach is an innovation
in Shia Islam conceived by Ayatollah Khomeini and
embraced by his spiritual heirs in the Islamic Republic.
It calls on believers to create an Islamic government
in order to establish a just Islamic order, combat
religious corruption and injustice, and fight on
behalf of the downtrodden in Iran, Palestine, and
elsewhere. Revolutionary activism is seen as both
a religious obligation and a means of hastening the
reappearance of the Mahdi.
■■ The violent apocalyptic approach has from time
to time been embraced by small, extremist splinter
groups in Iran (and elsewhere) that have
employed nihilistic violence to hasten the Mahdi’s
This upsurge in messianic devotion dates to the late
1990s, several years before Ahmadinezhad’s rise to
the presidency in 2005. The quiet promotion of the
cult of the Mahdi by conservative Iranian officials
(likely with the support of the Supreme Leader)
began in response to the decline in public support
for the ideology of the revolution and the election of
reformist politician Muhammad Khatami in the 1997
presidential ballot. It was seen as a way to provide
Iranians with a source of solace and comfort in their
struggle to deal with the everyday challenges of life in
the Islamic Republic.35
Ahmadinezhad, however, has politicized the cult
of the Mahdi and attempted to use it to advance his
own agenda. Though his religious worldview falls
broadly within the activist tradition, some of his more
extravagant claims regarding his personal relationship
with the Mahdi and the latter’s impending reappearance
place him on the fringes of this tradition and have
made him the target of harsh criticism by the clergy. In
part, this pushback reflects a power struggle between
Ahmadinezhad and the clerical establishment: if
Ahmadinezhad is in touch with the Mahdi, the Islamic
Republic does not need to rely on clerics (including
the Supreme Leader) to ascertain God’s will.36
Ahmadinezhad’s belief in the Mahdi’s impending
return may account for his unyielding support for the
downtrodden and for his hardline policy positions,
the founding of a new, more just, international order
that is more conducive to Iranian interests. To this end,
they have called for reform of the United Nations and
the creation of a new international economic order.30
The Shiite vision of the triumph of the downtrodden
and long-suffering community of believers seems to be
unfolding before their very eyes.
Believing that God and history are on their side,
and seeing themselves as the primary agents in this
divine plan, might Iran’s leaders be tempted to hasten
this process of American “decline” by providing
nuclear technology or weapons to states—or even
nonstate actors—who share their goal of altering the
international balance of power and curbing U.S. influence?
The history of nuclear proliferation and the
ambitions of Iran’s leaders provide reason for concern:
nearly every nuclear proliferator has helped other
states obtain the bomb or has otherwise shared its
nuclear know-how, while Iran’s leadership has promised
to share their “peaceful” nuclear technology with
other Muslim and like-minded states.31
The Shiite Apocalypse
The upsurge in messianic devotion in Iran—most prominently
manifested by President Ahmadinezhad’s frequent
resort to messianic discourse—has caused some
to ask whether Iran’s leaders might someday be tempted
to launch a nuclear attack against Israel or the United
States in order to hasten the reappearance of the Mahdi
and usher in the Shiite messianic era. While some students
of Shia Islam dismiss such concerns, others take
them quite seriously.32 At the very least, this issue adds
yet another layer of uncertainty and complexity to the
analysis of the implications of a nuclear Iran.
Twelver Shia Islam has given rise to three broad
approaches to the role of human agency in the reappearance
of the Mahdi: quietist, activist, and apocalyptic:33
■■The traditional, conservative quietist approach calls
for the faithful to patiently await the reappearance of
the Mahdi while engaging in prayer and acts of piety
in the hope of bringing about his return. Messianic
speculation and excessive devotion to the cult of the
Mahdi, however, are frowned upon—if not vigorously
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 7
Iran’s Nuclear Decisionmaking Michael Eisenstadt
might push for a war with Israel or the United States
as a means of fulfilling prophecy cannot be ruled out.46
At present, the politicized messianic current associated
with President Ahmadinezhad seems to be a
relatively marginal phenomenon among the regime’s
supporters, while the more extreme, violent variants
constitute a miniscule, fringe phenomenon. Thus the
possibility that an apocalyptic cult could someday
emerge within the military or IRGC and gain control
over a nuclear device or weapon, which it might then use
to advance its agenda, is probably exceedingly slim. But
given the ambiance of messianic expectation in some
circles in Iran, the possibility cannot be dismissed out of
hand, either. While such groups seem preoccupied more
with the elimination of their spiritual enemies than
with their own martyrdom, the danger exists that such
a group might seek to eliminate Islam’s enemies without
due consideration of the consequences for Iran.
Conclusion: Anticipating Nuclear
“Black Swans”
From its inception, decisionmaking in the Islamic
Republic has been influenced by the tension between
the absolute imperatives of religion and the pragmatic
concerns of statecraft. Since the late 1980s, the latter
orientation, as expressed by the regime’s expediency
doctrine, has dominated. This has ensured the primacy
of raison d’etat over religion, and the implementation
of the regime’s ambitious, anti–status quo agenda in a
way that minimized risk.
In recent years, however, the perceived successes
of the resistance doctrine in Lebanon and Gaza, the
strengthening of the Mahdist current in Iranian politics,
and the failure of the international community
to halt Iran’s nuclear program have emboldened Tehran
to pursue a more assertive foreign policy. Yet the
operational imperatives that flow from the doctrine
of resistance (to relentlessly push boundaries and
never yield on matters of principle) and the ideology
of political Mahdism (to stand fast and fight the
enemies of the Islamic Republic in anticipation of
the messianic era) coexist uneasily with the pragmatism
and flexibility embodied in the regime’s doctrine
of expediency.
as it requires the faithful “to be hard” and “to stand
strong” for their beliefs.37 Some of his critics claim that
his messianic leanings are causing the president to pursue
ill-advised or reckless policies, since, after all, the
Mahdi will soon come to set things right.38
Lacking formal religious training, President Ahmadinezhad
and some of his supporters (most of whom
are not clerics) may not be constrained by Shiite tradition
when it comes to beliefs about the Mahdi and the
circumstances surrounding his return.39 Indeed, Ahmadinezhad’s
claims that he is in touch with the Hidden
Imam, and that his return is imminent, smack of blasphemy
for traditional Shiites, who have ridiculed him
for having reportedly ordered the Tehran city council,
while he was mayor, to plan a secret route for the Mahdi’s
return.40 Such claims are not merely a manifestation
of the president’s idiosyncratic personality, but reflect
the tendency of messianic movements to break radically
from the traditions from whence they spring.41
Indeed, the undercurrent of messianic expectation
in Iran since the late 1990s and in Iraq since the
2003 U.S. invasion has given rise, on several occasions,
to violent apocalyptic sects.42 Some twenty
violent doomsday cults reportedly emerged in Iran
during Khatami’s presidency but were quashed by the
Islamic Republic’s security forces.43 One of these, an
extremist group called the Mahdaviat, was linked to a
January 1999 car bombing that badly wounded Tehran
judiciary chief Hojjatoleslam Ali Razini, as well
as a plot to assassinate Khatami and former president
Rafsanjani, and planned attacks on the country’s
Sunni minority. The group, which consisted of
about thirty people, succeeded in obtaining arms
that had been pilfered from Basij armories and apparently
believed they could hasten the reappearance of
the Mahdi by attacking senior officials whom they
believed stood in the way of his return and by sowing
sectarian discord.44
Furthermore, because many hardliners view Israel
and the United States as the embodiment of spiritual
corruption and evil,45 and because some apocalyptic
Shiite traditions speak of a conflict between the Islamic
umma and the Jews as part of the final struggle between
good and evil, the possibility that religious zealots
8 Policy Focus #115
Michael Eisenstadt Nuclear Fatwa
prudent not to dismiss the significance of this phenomenon—
particularly in the context of the possible
emergence of a nuclear Iran.
These concerns are compounded by a number of
additional “risk factors” that include Iran’s unsettled
domestic situation, the rise of the new generation of
hardline politicians, and the regime’s history of indulging
radicals who engage in rogue actions. These are
likely to influence Iranian nuclear decisionmaking in
ways that are impossible to foresee.
In sum, the increased salience of the resistance doctrine
and of Mahdist ideology in the Islamic Republic
could complicate U.S. efforts to prevent an Iranian
nuclear breakout and deter a nuclear Iran. Over time,
the cumulative impact of these, and other, risk factors
might be to increase the potential for a deterrence failure
that could have devastating consequences for the region.
As demonstrated by the events of the past decade, lowprobability,
high-impact events (“black swans,”) occur
fairly often in politics, as they do in the natural world;
these include the events of 9/11, the complications flowing
from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring
of 2011, and the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and
reactor meltdown in Japan.47 For this reason, little credence
should be given to facile claims regarding the relevance
of Cold War models of deterrence to a nuclear
Iran. Such claims are rarely grounded in an in-depth
understanding of the religious ideologies and political
doctrines that shape politics and drive decisionmaking
in the Islamic Republic, and which make the possibility
of a nuclear Iran such an unsettling prospect for so many
people in the Middle East.48
These trends, unless curbed, could increase Tehran’s
propensity for risk taking. This could take the form of
a decision to:
■■ pursue a clandestine or overt nuclear breakout;
■■ ramp up support for terrorism or coercive diplomacy
under the shadow of its nuclear umbrella;
■■ openly brandish its newly acquired nuclear capability;
■■ share nuclear technolog y and know-how with
friendly countries or nonstate actors.
The ultimate implications of Iran’s emergence as a
nuclear power will therefore depend, to a significant
extent, on the relative strength of these contending
orientations among key regime decisionmakers, in particular
the Supreme Leader, and the relative influence
of clerical and nonclerical elements in the government.
The upsurge in messianic devotion in Iran in recent
years is a particular cause for concern. Though the
version of political Mahdism espoused by President
Ahmadinezhad seems to be a relatively marginal phenomenon
that has garnered significant attention due
largely to the president’s efforts to promote it, it is not
clear how broad and deep popular support for this
ideology may run. And because messianic cults and
movements act in accordance with an internal logic
that is often not rooted in tradition, it is impossible
to say where this messianic impulse will ultimately
lead. Analysts and policymakers would, therefore, be
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 9
Notes Michael Eisenstadt
1. James R. Clapper, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Senate Armed Services Committee
(March 10, 2011),; National
Intelligence Council, Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, National Intelligence Estimate produced by the Office of
the Director of National Intelligence (November 2007), p. 7,
2. These considerations include domestic politics, the regional threat environment, the circumstances surrounding an Iranian
nuclear breakout, the perceived effectiveness of Israeli and U.S. missile defenses, the vulnerability of a future Iranian
nuclear stockpile to a disarming first strike, and the number of nuclear weapons states in the Middle East that Iran will
have to deter. See, for instance, James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, “After Iran Gets the Bomb: Containment and Its
Complications,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2010), pp. 33–49; Eric S. Edelman, Andrew F. Krepinevich, and Evan
Braden Montgomery, “The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran: The Limits of Containment,” Foreign Affairs ( January/February
2011), pp. 66–81; and Lynn E. Davis, Jeffrey Martini, Alireza Nader, Dalia Dassa Kaye, James T. Quinlivan, and Paul
Steinberg, Iran’s Nuclear Future: Critical U.S. Policy Choices (Washington, DC: RAND Corporation, 2011).
3. See, for instance, Fareed Zakaria, “They May Not Want the Bomb,” Newsweek, May 23, 2009, http://www.newsweek.
com/2009/05/22/they-may-not-want-the-bomb.html. For a somewhat more nuanced version of this argument,
see Juan Cole, “Does Iran Really Want the Bomb?” Salon, October 7, 2009,
4. See the essay by Mehdi Khalaji in this volume.
5. Those who take the regime’s claims at face value also seem to discount the possibility of deception in Tehran’s public
statements about its nuclear program. Nearly every proliferator, however, has engaged in deception, and one need not
refer to the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya (religiously sanctioned dissimulation) to account for this possibility. Politicians
and diplomats of all political persuasions lie or shade the truth; after all, it was the seventeenth-century English diplomat
Henry Wotton who said that an ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.
6. John Hart, Roger Roffey, and Jean Pascal Zanders, eds., Iran’s Disarmament and Arms Control Policies for Biological and
Chemical Weapons, and Biological Capabilities, Swedish Defence Research Agency (December 2003), pp. 20–22; Gregory
Giles, “The Islamic Republic of Iran and Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Weapons,” in Planning the Unthinkable:
How New Powers Will Use Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Weapons, ed. Peter R. Lavoy, Scott D. Sagan, and James J.
Wirtz (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 81, 91–93; Dilip Hiro, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military
Conflict (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 201–202.
7. According to Iran’s official declaration to the Conference of the States Parties of the Chemical Weapons Convention
(CWC) in November 1998 regarding Iran’s CW program: “Faced [during the Iran-Iraq War] with continued and
expanding use of chemical weapons against our soldiers and civilians alike, and persistent muteness and inaction on the
part of the United Nations Security Council, Iran was left with no alternative but to seek an effective means of deterrence
in the hope that it could halt, or at least limit the barrage of these barbarous weapons on its people. This particularly
became an absolute necessity when threats were made of chemical bombardment of the cities in the final stages of
the conflict, and some indeed were carried out against civilian centers as reported by the United Nations investigating
missions. In this context, the decision was made that, on a strictly limited scale capabilities should be developed to challenge
the imminent threat particularly against the civilian populated [sic] centers. We declared, at the time, that Iran had
chemical weapons capability, while maintaining the policy not to resort to these weapons and rely on diplomacy as the
sole mechanism to stop their use by its adversary. The war ended soon after. Following the establishment of cease fire,
the decision to develop chemical weapons capabilities was reversed and the process was terminated. It was reiterated
consequently that Iran would not seek or produce chemical weapons and would accelerate its efforts to ensure early
conclusion of a comprehensive and total ban under the CWC. This has continued to be my government’s policy ever
since.” Statement by Ambassador Muhammad R. Alborzi, director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the
Conference of the States Parties of the Chemical Weapons Convention, November 19, 1998,
statements/firstcommittee/session53/5.html. It is interesting to note that Iran’s declaration makes no mention of a fatwa
proscribing CW. See also Jean Pascal Zanders, Allegations of Iranian CW Use in the 1980–88 Gulf War: A Critical Analysis
from Open Sources, presentation at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, CNS WDC Office, Washington,
DC, March 7, 2001.
8. Robert Collier, “Nuclear Weapons Unholy, Iran Says: Islam Forbids Use, Clerics Proclaim,” San Francisco Chronicle,
October 31, 2003,
leader. For other statements by Khamenei on the topic of nuclear weapons, see Bill Samii, “Dr. Strangelove
in Iran,” Iran Report, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 23, 2004,
9. See, for instance, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi, “Despite U.S. Charges, Iran Is Not Building a Nuclear Weapon; Iran
Respects Both a Fatwa against the Bomb and IAEA Restrictions,” New Perspectives Quarterly Global Viewpoint, January
27, 2004,; UN Representative
10 Policy Focus #115
Michael Eisenstadt Nuclear Fatwa
Amb. Muhammad Javad Zarif, “Iran: U.S. Nuclear Fears Overblown,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2004, http://; Agence France-Presse, “Fatwa Restrains Iran More on Nuclear
Weapons than Treaty: Negotiator,” April 12, 2005, See
also Nazila Fathi, “Chief Cleric Says Iran Doesn’t Seek Nuclear Arms,” New York Times, June 4, 2008, http://www.
10. For the text of the letter, see
11. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “Message to the Tehran International Nuclear Disarmament Conference: ‘Nuclear Energy for
All, Nuclear Weapons for None,’” April 17, 2010, It is hard to avoid the
conclusion that Khamenei was making a conscious distinction in this speech between producing and stockpiling nuclear
weapons, which he described merely as a peril and a threat, and using them, which he described as illegal or haram.
12. See the essay by Mehdi Khalaji in this volume.
13. Associated Press, “Top Cleric: Iran Has Right to ‘Special Weapons,’” June 14, 2010,
14. Asghar Schirazi, The Constitution of Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic Republic (New York: I. B. Taurus, 1997),
pp. 233–246; David Menashri, Revolution at a Crossroads: Iran’s Domestic Politics and Regional Ambitions (Washington,
DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1997), p. 8.
15. Thus, when jailed Iranian activist Abdollah Momeni asked his interrogators why they used brutal methods such as torture
to extract confessions, they responded that “according to the founder of the Islamic Republic the preservation of the regime
is the foremost obligation.” From “Letter of Prominent Prisoner of Conscience, Abdollah Momeni, to Ayatollah Khamanei,”
International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, September 9, 2010,
letter-momeni-khamanei/. In July 1988, during the final weeks of the Iran-Iraq War, Ayatollah Khomeini reportedly issued
a fatwa authorizing the execution of thousands of detainees from various opposition groups. For more on this tragic chapter,
see Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Deadly Fatwa: Iran’s 1988 Prison Massacre (September 2009), http://
16. “The Armed Might of Iran: Able to Manifest Itself in a Threatening Manner,” Ettela’at, September 24, 1995, p. 3.
17. Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1990), p. 273.
18. Interview with Defense Minister Adm. Ali Shamkhani, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)–Tehran, Television
Second Program, July 30, 1998, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES-98-217),
August 5, 1998.
19. See, for instance, the account of the Iranian decision to not send a flotilla to Gaza by Mehdi Jedinia, “Tehran Finds Neat Way
Out on Gaza Shipment,” Mianeh, July 13, 2010,
20. Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, December 14, 2001, in BBC Worldwide Monitoring, December 15, 2001.
21. Rafsanjani elaborated on his understanding of the concept of expediency and its relationship to Islam in a 2003 interview:
“[W]e can solve whatever foreign problem is threatening us from the viewpoint of Islam….Our ideology is flexible.
We can choose our expediency on the basis of Islam. Still, to put the country in jeopardy on the grounds that we are
acting on an Islamic basis is not at all Islamic.” Islamic Republic News Agency, April 12, 2003, quoted in Ayelet Savyon,
Middle East Media Research Institute, Inquiry & Analysis no. 132 (April 15, 2003),
22. A. Savyon and Y. Mansharof, “The Doctrine of Mahdism: The Ideological and Political Philosophy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
and Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi,” MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis no. 357 (May 2007),
23. Maziar Bahari, “118 Days, 12 Hours, 54 Minutes,” Newsweek, November 30, 2009, http://www.newsweek.
24. Ehud Yaari, “The Muqawama Doctrine,” Jerusalem Report, November 13, 2006.
25. According to a recent AP wire service story based on an intelligence report from an unspecified country, President
Ahmadinejad would like Iran to openly forge forward with the development of nuclear weapons, while Supreme Leader
Khamenei, fearful of the international response, would prefer that Iran take a clandestine path to the bomb. George
Jahn, “Iran Prez Said Pushing for Nukes,” Associated Press, July 22, 2011.
26. Mark Bowden, Guests of the Ayatollah—The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam
(New York: Grove Press, 2006), pp. 8–15.
27. David Crist, Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S.-Iranian Confrontation at Sea, Policy Focus no. 95 (Washington, DC:
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009), pp. 25–26,
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 11
Notes Michael Eisenstadt
28. Ahmadinezhad has also tried to assemble a group of foreign policy advisors, an act interpreted by many as a bid to
expand his influence and usurp many of the responsibilities of the Foreign Ministry. Golnaz Esfandiari, “Ahmadinejad’s
Special Envoys Become ‘Advisors,’” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Persian Letters, September 16, 2010, http://www.
29. Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, speeches to the UN General Assembly, September 2008 and September
2009, respe ctively : http :// eneralassbly/20080923155251.pdf and
ht tp : / /www. i r an-un . o r g / ind e x .p hp ? op t i on=c om_ c ont ent&v i ewa r t i c l e&i d=7 9 5 : s t a t ement -
30. David Ignatius, “Reading Iran by the Letter,” Washington Post, September 20, 2009,
31. Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman, The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation (Minneapolis:
Zenith Press, 2009). For Iranian statements of intent to transfer nuclear technology to other Muslim states,
see: “Ahmadinezhad Says Iran Ready to Transfer Nuclear Technology to Islamic States,” Islamic Republic News Agency,
September 15, 2005; Ali Akbar Dareini, “Iran Offers to Transfer Nuclear Technology to Its Neighbors,” Associated Press
Worldstream, December 16, 2006.
32. For the former perspective, see Zeev Maghen, “Occultation in Perpetuum: Shiite Messianism and the Policies of
the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Journal 62, no. 2 (Spring 2008), pp. 232–257; Timothy R. Furnish, A Western
View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearizing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal? Institute for Near East
& Gulf Military Analysis, INEGMA Special Report no. 12, January 2011,
Report12/Special%20Report%2012.pdf. For a less-sanguine perspective, see Bernard Lewis, “August 22: Does
Iran Have Something in Store?” Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2006; and David Cook, “Messianism in the Shiite
Crescent,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 11 (April 2011), pp. 91–103,
33. The term “apocalyptic” has a double meaning that can lead to confusion when discussing millennial and Mahdist
movements in Islam. While the term may simply refer to the doctrine of the Mahdi (or messiah) and the messianic
era presaged by his return, it may also refer to the violent cataclysmic events that some Shiite (as well as non-Muslim)
traditions and some believers claim will be associated with the reappearance of the Mahdi. In this paper, the term is
used in the latter sense. However, careless use of the term has clouded and confused the discussion about the potential
implications of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and given the false impression that all Shiites are of the violent
apocalyptic variety.
34. This last approach should not be confused with the view of some believers that the Mahdi will reappear at a time of great
turmoil and strife, and that these tribulations are a sign (and not a cause) of his imminent return, or with the more mainstream
view that the Hidden Imam’s reappearance will be followed first by a final violent struggle between the forces of
good and evil and then by the establishment of a world government under his control. For more on Shiite apocalpyticism,
see Mehdi Khalaji, Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy, Policy Focus no. 79 (Washington, DC: Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, January 2008), pp. 3–6, 14–18,
pdf. See also Cook, “Messianism in the Shiite Crescent”; Abbas Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shiism
(London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), pp. 41–70, 221–251; Jean-Pierre Filiu, “The Return of Political Mahdism,” Current Trends in
Islamist Ideology 8 (June 2009), pp. 26–38; Ali Alfoneh, “Ahmadinejad versus the Clergy,” American Enterprise Institute,
AEI Middle East Outlook no. 5 (August 2008), pp. 1–4,;
Muhammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, “The Concept of Mahdi in Twelver Shiism,” Encyclopedia Iranica, December 2007, http://; and Jassim M. Hussain and Abdulaziz
A. Sachedina, “Messianism and the Mahdi,” in Expectation of the Millennium: Shiism in History, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr,
Hamid Dabashi, and Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), pp. 11, 43.
35. Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam, pp. 221–251.
36. Savyon and Mansharof, “The Doctrine of Mahdism”; Alfoneh, “Ahmadinejad versus the Clergy.” See also Thomas
Erdbrink, “Ahmadinejad Criticized for Saying Long-Ago Imam Mahdi Leads Iran,” Washington Post, May 8, 2008,; Nazila Fathi, “Iranian
Clerics Tell the President to Leave the Theology to Them,” New York Times, May 20, 2008, http://www.nytimes.
37. Amir Mohebian, political editor of the traditional conservative Resalat newspaper, as quoted in Scott Peterson, “Waiting
for the Rapture in Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 2005,
38. Former prime minister and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has expressed concern that
Ahmadinezhad’s messianic belief system was having a harmful impact on government policies. See
Mir Hossein Mousavi’s Facebook page, “Opposition Leader Mousavi Reveals Untold Facts of the Iran-
Iraq War,” July 27, 2010,
12 Policy Focus #115
Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
nagfth-hayy-az-hsht-sal-dfa-mqds-dr-tazh-tryn-skhnan-myrhsyn-mousavi-revealed-so/412365407605. For the possibility
that Iranian miscalculation or overreach could lead to a clash with the United States or Israel, see David Crist and
Michael Eisenstadt, “It’s Time to Get Tough on Iran,” ForeignPolicy, August 11, 2010,
39. Khalaji, Apocalyptic Politics, p. 17; Cook, “Messianism in the Shite Crescent,” pp. 95, 97–98, 101–102. Such innovation
may affect both rituals and beliefs; thus, for instance, in June 2008 a messianic cult reportedly appeared in Qom called the
“Followers of the Thirteenth Imam” whose members pray facing Jamkaran, Iran (where some Shiites believe the Mahdi
will reappear), rather than Mecca, the direction in which all other Muslims pray. See Alfoneh, “Ahmadinejad versus the
Clergy,” p. 2. This is not just a problem in Shia Islam: the Jewish messianic movement founded by the seventeenth-century
false messiah Shabtai Tzvi eventually degenerated into a cult that turned fast days into feasts (one of the putative characteristics
of the Jewish messianic era) and engaged in orgiastic rituals that violated Judaism’s strict laws of sexual modesty.
40. Peterson, “Waiting for the Rapture.”
41. A recent example of this phenomenon would include the messianic cult of Juhayman al-Utaybi, who led the violent 1979
seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and who believed that his brother-in-law was the Mahdi. Yaroslav Trofimov, The
Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaeda (New York: Anchor Books, 2008).
42. Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam, pp. 225–227, 230, 239–246.
43. Khalaji, Apocalyptic Politics, p. 17.
44. Islamic Republic News Agency, “Mahdaviyat Group Behind Razini’s Aborted Assassination Attempt,” April 24, 2009;
“Messianic Muslim Group to Go on Trial in Iran,”, November 23, 2000,
WORLD/meast/11/23/iran.trial.reut/. Similar groups have appeared in Iraq, such as in January 2007 when hundreds
of members of a Shiite messianic cult known as the “Soldiers of Heaven” battled Iraqi and U.S. troops. The Soldiers’
apparent intent was to kill Shiite religious leaders in Najaf during the commemoration of Ashura, with the belief that
by sowing chaos they could hasten the reappearance of the Mahdi. See Reider Visser, “When to Confront Mahdists:
A Challenge for the U.S. Military,” CTC Sentinel 1, no. 7 ( June 2008), pp. 13–14,
CTCSentinel-Vol1Iss7.pdf. See also David Cook, “Iraq as the Focus for Apocalyptic Scenarios,” CTC Sentinel 1, no. 11
(October 2008), pp. 20–22,, and Filiu, “The Return of
Political Mahdism,” pp. 35–37.
45. For Khamenei’s view of the United States and Israel, see Karim Sadjadpour, Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran’s
Most Powerful Leader (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009), pp. 14–21. For a representative
sampling of Ahmadinezhad’s views of the United States and Israel, see his annual addresses to the UN General
Assembly, archived at In particular, see his September 2008 speech at http://www.president.
46. While most Shiite hadith (statements or actions attributed to the prophet Muhammad) emphasize that the Mahdi will
exact revenge against the Quraysh and Umayyad enemies of the Prophet’s family (the latter being Imam Ali and his wife
Fatima), and that these pre-messianic-era events will occur principally in the Arabian Peninsula (Mecca and Medina)
and Iraq (Kufa), others emphasize that the Mahdi will, alternatively, capture or raze Jerusalem and that the Jews will be
the main object of his wrath. Thus, according to one Shiite hadith, “When the Mahdi returns he will fight with Jews and
kill all of them. Even if a Jew hides behind a rock, the rock speaks and says, O Muslim! A Jew is hidden behind me. Kill
him!” See Khalaji, Apocalyptic Politics, p. 4. See also Hussein and Sachedina, “Messianism and the Mahdi,” pp. 19–20,
25, 32–33, 36–40; I. K. Poonawala, “Apocalyptic,” Encyclopedia Iranica,
which-has-been-rcvealed; M. A. Amir-Moezzi, “Eschatology in Imami Shiism,” Encylopedia Iranica, http://www.; and Cook, “Iraq as the Focus,” pp. 20–22. Sunni Muslims have a number of similar
hadith concerning the war against the Jews at the End of Days and the “talking rock.” See, for example, Article 7 of the
Hamas covenant:
47. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2010).
48. See, for instance, the interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski on Aljazeera (English), “U.S. and Iran: Best of Enemies,”
Empire, March 31, 2010, For
the limitations of Cold War models of deterrence as applied to Iran, see Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt,
eds., Deterring the Ayatollahs: Complications in Applying Cold War Strategy to Iran, Policy Focus no. 72 (Washington,
DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 2007),
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 13
These strikes reached such a level that Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani, then speaker of the Majlis (parliament)
and commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed
forces, recalled in his diary that Iraqi Sunni religious
authorities met in Najaf (possibly at Baghdad’s urging)
with Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasem Khoi, then
the most revered Shiite religious authority, asking him
to urge Khomeini to cease the attacks on Iraqi cities.
Khoi declined, apparently because “he knew that Khomeini
would not listen to him”4—a strong indication
that Khoi, who held to the Islamic proscription on killing
noncombatants, did not believe Khomeini’s decisionmaking
was guided by Shiite religious law.
While contradictions between what politicians say
and do are not unusual, the Iranian case is particularly
important given the international community’s concerns
about the regime’s nuclear intentions and the
stakes involved in Iran’s potential proliferation. This
essay examines in greater detail the extent to which
Islamic legal principles and other considerations are
likely to influence Iranian nuclear decisionmaking.
Khamenei’s Nuclear Fatwa
In 1988, as Iran’s military and financial resources
to prosecute the war with Iraq dwindled, Mohsen
Rezaii, then commander-in-chief of the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), wrote a letter
to Ayatollah Khomeini stating that Iran would need
nuclear weapons if it were to continue fighting the
war. Khomeini’s response was disclosed in the memoirs
of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s
elected successor, and more recently in a volume
of Rafsanjani’s diaries (referenced earlier). In these
sources, Rezaii was quoted as saying,
There are no victories forthcoming in the next five
years...If in the next five years we can raise 350 infantry
brigades, acquire 2,500 tanks, 3,000 artillery
pieces, and 300 warplanes, and can produce nuclear
and laser weapons—which are among the necessities
2 | Shiite Jurisprudence, Political Expediency,
and Nuclear Weapons
Mehdi Khalaji
Islamic law exists to serve the interests of the Muslim
community and of Islam. [Therefore,] to save
Muslim lives and for the sake of Islam’s survival
it is obligatory to lie, it is obligatory to drink wine
[if necessary].1
—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
For a number of years now, diplomats and officials
of the Islamic Republic of Iran have stated that Islam
forbids the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear
weapons, and that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has
issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, to this effect. Such
statements have led some commentators in the West to
claim that this fatwa, which reflects the fundamental
tenets of Islam, might well prevent Iran from acquiring
the bomb.2 Given the importance of this issue to the
security and stability of the Middle East and to U.S.
interests in the region, it is important that we subject
this claim to critical scrutiny, inquire into the significance
and nature of this fatwa, and understand to what
extent Iran’s decisionmakers are restrained by Islamic
principles and laws.
Indeed, Iran’s conduct during the Iran-Iraq War
(1980–1988) provides reason to believe that Iranian
nuclear decisionmaking is likely to be guided not just
by religious principles, but by a more complex mix of
considerations. During that war, Iraqi president Saddam
Hussein repeatedly used his nation’s air force
and surface-to-surface missiles to attack Iranian cities.
Although Iranian officials announced their opposition
to targeting civilians, claiming the practice to be
prohibited on religious grounds, the Islamic Republic
did indeed retaliate in kind, killing many Iraqi civilians
in numerous rocket and missile attacks. Moreover, in
response to Iraqi chemical weapons attacks, Ayatollah
Khomeini is reported to have eventually permitted the
production and stockpiling of chemical weapons—
though there is no evidence that Iran actually used
them during the war.3
14 Policy Focus #115
Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
weapons is against Islamic rulings (ahkam). We have
explicitly announced this. We believe that imposing
on our people the cost of producing and stockpiling
nuclear weapons is absurd. Production of such
weapons and their preservation is very costly and we
do not see it [as] right to impose these costs onto our
This is not right to use science in order to produce…
nuclear weapons. [Because] when such a bomb
is dropped somewhere, it would kill both guilty and
innocent, armed individuals, young children, babies,
and oppressed human beings. A science used for this
end and a country in possession of such a weapon and
its development would be led to this point which we
do not approve [of ]; we do not like such change.12
It is worth noting that although Khamenei states
explicitly that the use of nuclear weapons is forbidden
in Islam, his more recent statements regarding their
production or stockpiling are ambiguous. For instance,
in a June 4, 2009, speech he said:
The Iranian nation and its officials have repeatedly
announced that we do not want nuclear weapons…We
announced that using the bomb is forbidden in Islam.
Preserving [nuclear weapons] is a grave danger and [a]
And on February 19, 2010:
We do not believe in atomic weapons…We would not
go after [them]. According to our religious convictions,
our religious principles, using such weapons of
mass destruction is forbidden, is haram [religiously
forbidden]. This is [the] destruction of land and people,
which the Quran forbids.14
Two months later, at the Tehran International
Conference on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation,
Khamenei concluded his speech by saying, “We believe
that using such weapons is haram.”15 He does not mention
producing or stockpiling them.16 Perhaps, in the
Supreme Leader’s view, creating and storing such weapons
will be sufficient to change the power equation in
the region, thus obviating religiously objectionable use
of the weapons.
Interestingly, no written texts exist for the Supreme
Leader’s fatwas, though Shiite juridical tradition grants
equal weight to an oral and written legal opinions—a
phenomenon to be discussed further in the next section.17
of modern war—then, God willing, we can think of
resuming offensive operations.5
As for Khomeini’s response itself, first of all, he
accepted both a ceasefire with Iraq and UN Security
Council Resolution 598. But apparently this
acquiescence did not arise from opposition to using
an atomic bomb but rather from concerns regarding
Iran’s ability to produce or buy such a weapon. As it
is, Khomeini apparently never issued a fatwa against
nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction
Since the mid-1990s, Supreme Leader Khamenei
has been denying accusations that Iran is trying to produce
WMD.6 But over time, his emphasis has shifted
from a denial of the practical utility of nuclear weapons
to a focus on Islamic prohibitions against their use.
Khamenei once stated, “We do not want an atomic
bomb. We are even against having chemical weapons.
Even when Iraq attacked us with chemical weapons, we
did not produce chemical weapons. This is against our
principles.”7 He later clarified this point:
There is a difference between nuclear technology and
a nuclear weapon...We do not have the motivation to
pursue nuclear weapons. We have not and will not
go after them. We do not need a nuclear bomb. If we
defeated our enemy so far, it was not with nuclear
Khamenei’s statements on the religious prohibition
against the production and use of WMD “in any
form”9 were apparently first recorded in October 2003.
More explicit language on the matter came on March
21, 2005, when the ayatollah said, “[Western governments]
lie and say that we are concerned about making
a bomb. They know that the production of an atomic
bomb is not on our agenda. The Iranian people should
know it...Using atomic weapons to destroy other
nations is an American behavior...Islam does not allow
us [to produce the atomic bomb].”10 Then, during separate
speeches on June 4 and November 9, 2006, he
once again spoke bluntly about the WMD issue:
[The West claims] that Iran is after a nuclear bomb.
This is untrue and is a pure lie. We do not need nuclear
bombs. We do not have any target against which we
can use nuclear bombs. We believe that using nuclear
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 15
Jurisprudence, Expediency, and WMD Mehdi Khalaji
war (Dar al-Harb).21 Given these parameters, it is difficult
to define the notion of God’s enemy as excluding
noncombatant nonbelievers when Islam allows Muslims
to use any kind of weapon against the “enemies
of God.”
Thus, according to a verse in the Quran—and one
that constitutes part of the IRGC uniform logo—the
forces of Islam would seem to have very wide latitude
in dealing with nonbelievers: “And prepare against
them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of
war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and
your enemy and others besides them whom you do not
know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you
spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you,
and you will not be wronged.”22
The debate over suicide bombings in Iran illuminates
this point further. In an article in the official
quarterly publication of the Assembly of Experts,
Hokoumat-e Eslami, editor Sayyed Javad Varai argues
that suicide bombings are not only allowed but in fact
virtuous, according to Islamic principles. The possible
death of innocents is explained away as follows:
First, sometimes all members of the enemy, including
women and men, young and old, are involved in
the invasion...hence the only way to deprive them of
security is [through] isteshhadi [self-sacrifice] operations.
Second, it is possible that the enemy’s women
have been trained to fight along with their men,
hence they are the enemy’s soldiers and killing them
is considered as killing enemy forces, not innocent
citizens [namely noncombatant civilians]...Third,
when Islam’s fighters conduct such operations, the
killing of others [civilians] seems to be inevitable...
Fourth, even if [Islam’s fighters] kill innocent citizens,
it would be a legitimate legal retaliation. Is it
illegal to reciprocate the actions of an enemy who
kills youth and teenagers, women and men, elders
and sick people, and considers the killing of children
and women as a part of his creed?23
For many Shiite clerics, the blood of nonbelievers
does not have the same legal status as the blood of
Muslims. On November 20, 2005, Ayatollah Ahmad
Jannati, who heads the powerful Guardian Council
and is a close advisor to Khamenei, said, “Human
beings, apart from Muslims, are animals who roam the
earth and engage in corruption.”24
Are WMD Forbidden by Islam?
To understand how Iranian leaders view nuclear weapons,
we must consider not only the status of WMD in
traditional Islamic jurisprudence, but also the ways in
which dissimulation, fatwas, and the doctrine of state
interest (maslaha) play into decisionmaking in the
Islamic Republic.
Most Shiite jurists believe that Islam forbids the use
of WMD, but the debate is not yet resolved. For opponents
of WMD use, the main legal argument is that
they would kill civilians. But other jurists contend that
any means can justify winning a war.
The prominent Shiite jurist Sayyed Ali Tabatabai
(1748–1816)—who founded Karbala’s local police to
protect the Shiite holy city against Sunnis—states in
his seminal work:
It is permitted to fight by all means that guarantee
victory, such as besieging fortresses, using siege catapults,
setting fires [to people’s houses and properties],
felling trees, flooding residences, or depriving [enemy
civilians] of water and so on, whether it would be
necessary or not, although some jurists believe that
these measures are permissible only if victory in war
depends on using them.
To buttress his argument, Tabatabai mentions actions
committed by the Prophet Muhammad in his war
against the people of Taef18 and the Bani Nazir tribe.19
Victory in war, Tabatabai continues, can justify even
the killing of Muslim women, children, the elderly,
prisoners, and businessmen, let alone non-Muslims.
And in the wake of these killings, Islamic governments
are obliged to pay neither expiation (kaffarah) nor
blood money (diyah).20
Civilians and Noncombatants
In Islamic jurisprudence, the distinction between
civilians and combatants is unclear when it comes
to nonbelievers and mature male Muslims. Fine distinctions
do exist in Islamic law between Muslims
and non-Muslims, and between non-Muslims who
live in Islamic lands (Dar al-Islam) and pay taxes to
the Islamic government and non-Muslims who live
in the lands governed by nonbelievers (Dar al-Kufr),
also known in Islamic jurisprudence as the domain of
16 Policy Focus #115
loses its virtue. The classical Muslim thinker Ghazali
believed that lying was in itself not bad and only haram
if it hurt someone. He explained speech as a means to
an end. If a good end can be reached both by telling the
truth and by telling a lie, then lying is impermissible.
But if the end is a duty [vajib] and can be reached both
by telling a lie and the truth, then lying is permissible.
And if a duty cannot be fulfilled except by telling a lie,
then lying is a duty.32
In contemporary Iran, the pro-regime theologian
Morteza Motahhari distinguishes between expedient
or “altruistic” lies (dorough-e maslahat amiz), which
aim to promote a greater good, and self-interested lies
(dorough-e manefat khiz), which are motivated by personal
gain or advantage. Expedient lies, he explains,
are not bad—in fact, their moral value is truthlike.33
Another juridical concept on which Motahhari elaborates
is towria, or the use of double meaning that serves
a purpose and avoids outright deception. As Motahhari
tells it,
Enemy spies are pursuing an innocent person and are
searching homes. They ask you about him. You are an
honest person but if you tell the truth, that innocent
person’s life will be at risk. When they ask you, “Have
you seen him?” say “no,” but by “no” you do not mean
that you have not seen him (you mean, for instance,
that you did not see him last week, not today). This
is towria.34
Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, another proregime
theologian, believes lying can be permitted not
only to save one’s life, but also to save one’s money:
“Lying that leads to protection of one’s money [assets]
or another’s money is good and necessary.” When
asked about how to respond to the imposition of
an illegitimate tax, one of the Shiite imams recommended
that the individual “lie and save that money.”
The imam even advised Shiites to “take a false oath
and not let unjust rulers take people’s money.”35 All
in all, most Shiite jurists believe lying is permissible or
necessary in times of war; to reconcile individuals to
each other; to preserve domestic peace between husband
and wife or two Muslim individuals; by adults
to children, in certain cases; and to terminally ill
individuals about their condition.36 In general, jurists
Another area in which the line between civilian and
military nonbelievers is blurred is that of defensive versus
offensive jihad. While most Twelver Shiite jurists
believe that confronting a foreign attack—or defensive
jihad—is religiously justified, the matter of offensive
jihad is trickier. Some jurists hold that neither Muslim
governments nor jurists can declare offensive jihad
against infidels in the absence of the Mahdi, the Shiite
Twelfth Imam. But other jurists have argued that offensive
jihad is permitted when backed by a strong Muslim
ruler who has the capability to spread the faith.25 Jurists
such as the late Ayatollah Montazeri argue that even a
ruling jurist, in the absence of the Imam, can declare
offensive jihad against Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians
who do not live under an Islamic government.26
Further examination reveals the concept of “civilian
noncombatants” as alien to the Islamic juridical tradition.
Jurists like Montazeri exempt only women and
children from the sword of Muslim soldiers, and not
civilians as a whole.27 Islamic jurisprudence, likewise,
does not define wartime targets as those individuals
engaged in warlike activities, typically soldiers, leaving
open the field of interpretation.28
Dissimulation and Moral Relativism
Iranian nuclear decisionmaking may also be influenced
by Shia Islam’s attitude toward dissimulation and
moral relativism. Even though Islam is a religion of law,
its tenets are not necessarily respected unconditionally
or categorically—in a Kantian sense. As in other
law-based religions, such as Judaism, a practical, commonsense
approach guides the Muslim attitude toward
law.29 While Shiites believe that justice is an absolute
good and injustice is an absolute evil, they have a very
nuanced and ambiguous approach to defining good
and bad, just and unjust. But in this ambiguity dwells a
risk of lapsing into moral relativism. For instance, Muslim
jurists do not believe that “honesty” is an absolute
moral value.30 Therefore, juridical texts cover the various
permissible and impermissible types of lying.
A phrase by the classical Persian poet Saadi captures
the prevailing view among Muslims: “A convenient lie
is better than an evil-causing truth.”31 By this, he means
that if telling the truth puts one’s life at risk, then truth
Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 17
Jurisprudence, Expediency, and WMD Mehdi Khalaji
that if [his companion] Abouzar knew what is in the
heart of [another companion] Salman, he would have
killed him.”44
The virtue of ambiguity permeates Persian lifestyle,
architecture,45 and literature. And the principle
plays out ironically in the ideology of two interesting
branches of Sufism: the Qalandariyeh and the Malamatiyeh.
In public, both Qalandaris and Malamatis
conceal their affiliation with Sufism, deny the primacy
of Islamic dogma, and openly disrespect sharia (Islamic
law). They thus achieve an anonymity that, in their
view, brings them closer to God and spares them the
indignity of hypocrisy, viewed as the main source of
religious corruption.46 As opposed to religious hypocrites,
who feign religiosity in public but violate their
faith’s tenets in private, the Qalandaris and Malamatis
act irreverently in public but are true men of God in
private and in their hearts.
Mystical Islam provides even more grounding for
the use of taqiyya. In the mystical tradition, the truth
is divine and transmitted to humans not as a result of
their efforts but through divine grace. Therefore, those
few elite who experience the truth or gain that knowledge
are allowed to reveal the secrets of God to only a
very small circle of the initiated. According to Islamic
mysticism, prophets are believed to have used plain
language that was easily understood by ordinary people
but that, at the same time, concealed truths accessible
only to the elite. The two sides to this divide are
the ulama of the zahir (apparent), who know only the
explicit meaning of the revealed word and who interpret
exoteric Islam, and the ulama of the batin (hidden),
who gain access to the hidden meanings that are
a divine secret and who create esoteric Islam.47
A vali, whose status is similar to that of a saint in the
Christian tradition, is known esoterically as a “friend
of God,” one who has access to God and his truth.48 In
Shiite tradition, the vali may be understood in terms
of the medieval concept of the philosopher, the bearer
of truth. According to the twentieth-century political
philosopher Leo Strauss, esoteric learning protected the
medieval philosopher from paying the price associated
with bearing “unpopular truths” beyond the cognitive
reach of ordinary people. Esoteric writing, in turn, aims
recognize the legitimacy of lying during wartime as a
means of deceiving the enemy.
In Shia Islam, the interests of the Muslim umma
stand above the interests of each Muslim individual.
Hence, if Islamic law permits Muslims to lie for the
sake of their own personal interests or welfare, then
certainly Islamic governments can lie on behalf of the
interests of the Muslim umma. Ayatollah Khomeini
repeatedly used such logic in his statements.37
Interrelation of Taqiyya
and Velayat
The uniquely Shiite principle of taqiyya is also likely
to have an important influence on Iranian nuclear
decisionmaking. Taqiyya translates literally as caution,
fear, or avoidance. But the term also denotes a
uniquely Shiite principle—that of engaging in deception
for the sake of self-protection—and is synonymous
with kitman (concealment).38 In practice, taqiyya
dictates that if ever one’s life or money is at risk,
lying about one’s faith or any other matter is permissible
to avert harm.39 The classical Shiite theologian
Amin al-Islam Tabarsi said that taqiyya is permitted
“in all cases if it is necessary.”40 Some jurists argue further
that in safeguarding the interests of the Muslim
community, taqiyya can be highly desirable.41 And as
mentioned earlier, Ayatollah Khomeini himself stated
publicly that rulers or subjects should lie or even drink
wine (read: violate sharia) when required for the expediency
of the Islamic government.42
The principle of taqiyya is rooted in centuries of
Shiite status as a persecuted minority under Sunni
rule, during which Shiites had to dissemble in order
to survive. Furthermore, the term applies profoundly
to the Shiite distinction between esoteric and exoteric
knowledge. According to this distinction, ordinary
people (avam) need not have access to the entire
truth, as compared with the elite (khavas), for whom
the truth should be accessible. Even the transmitters
of the hadith (sayings of the Prophet) do not
share their knowledge with everyone. Certain hadith
appear in texts for popular readers, while another
set is presented for an elite audience.43 In one widely
known hadith, the Prophet says, “I swear to God
18 Policy Focus #115
Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
Ijtihad is defined not as a credential attainable by
methodical steps but rather as an intellectual faculty.
This means that not just any aspirant can attain the status.
Two means exist for reaching ijtihad: receipt of a
certificate from one’s teacher—a well-established mujtahid
himself—or publication of one’s writings, which
will indicate clearly the sufficiency of one’s intellectual
faculties. Once a student has attained ijtihad, he is
forbidden from following another mujtahid and must
perform his religious duties according to his own legal
understanding. For those who are not scholars or who
have not attained the status of mujtahid, the requirement,
according to most jurists, is that they follow the
most learned (aalam) mujtahid. Therefore, choosing a
mujtahid as a source of emulation is not an arbitrary
decision; one must be certain about the religious credentials
of the mujtahid he follows. In addition to his
intellectual ability, a mujtahid must be a living, adult,
Twelver Shiite male of legitimate descent who is just
and sane.
A mujtahid can issue not only a fatwa—a definitive
opinion based on his deductions from the religious
texts or empirical evidence—but also a more tentative
ruling known as an ehtiat (literally, a caution). Though
indefinite, an ehtiat is thought to estimate divine will.
A follower is obliged to honor his mujtahid’s fatwas
but not his ehtiats and can, in the latter case, turn
to a mujtahid less learned than his own to seek an
alternative opinion.
In Shiism, a mujtahid is regarded as fallible and,
as a result, his rulings are not necessarily considered
manifestations of the divine. This fallibility is reflected
in the doctrine of takhteah. Yet, whereas a mujtahid’s
opinion is considered his opinion, God’s will is beyond
the reach of worshippers in the absence of the so-called
Infallible Imam, and so they have no choice but to follow
a mujtahid’s opinion. Even if a mujtahid fails to
correctly understand the earthly expression of God’s
divine order, he is held blameless.
In contrast to Shiite doctrine, most Sunnis believe a
mufti—the Sunni equivalent of mujtahid—is infallible
(saeb) and that God’s orders and expressions of will
multiply in accordance with the number of his opinions.
In other words, God has as many expressions of
to protect not only the philosopher but society itself
from the danger inherent in philosophy: the truth.49
Valaya, roughly “sainthood,” has legal and political
as well as religious implications.50 Whereas certain
Shiite imams and prophets can achieve vali status,
political rulers too can attain valaya through their
authority to rule. Since Ayatollah Khomeini was a sufi
and a jurist alike, he embodied both the esoteric and
legal conceptions of valaya. According to his notion
of velayat-e faqih—the doctrine granting the Supreme
Leader his authority—the faqih (ruler) has authority
equivalent to that of Muhammad and the twelve
Infallible Imams of Shia Islam.
The dichotomy of kashf (discovery) versus entekhab
(appointment) also helps elucidate the place of valaya
on the Iranian political scene. On the one hand,
certain regime hardliners such as former judiciary
head Muhammad Yazdi and the cleric Muhammad
Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi believe in kashf, or the divine
appointment of a leader, according to which the
Assembly of Experts serves only as a medium to reveal
divine will, as in the selection of imams and prophets.
Reformist clerics, on the other hand, subscribe to
the notion that leaders are actually appointed by the
Assembly of Experts, without divine guidance. For
those who subscribe to kashf, the implications involve
not only the spiritual status of the ruling jurist but also
his ability to rely on his own judgment and knowledge
to discern God’s will when making decisions, without
the need for outside counsel.51 This model accords
with the Straussian conception, whereby rulers should
not share their knowledge with their subjects for the
good of the subjects.52
Role of Religious Rulings
In Islamic law, ijtihad refers to a personal juridical
philosophy. In the classic books of usul al-fiqh (legal
theory), a mujtahid (practitioner of ijtihad) is defined
as someone who possesses an intellectual faculty that
enables him to deduce God’s orders from the primary
sources of Islam (namely, the Quran and hadith),
rational reasoning, and the conditional consensus of
early Islamic interpreters of the law.53 A mujtahid—
who may hold the title faqih or mufti—has the
authority to issue a fatwa, or religious ruling.54
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Jurisprudence, Expediency, and WMD Mehdi Khalaji
laws, adding that even “respecting driving rules and
signs is a religious duty.” In general, the 1979 Islamic
Revolution presented Khomeini with a challenge
rooted in the responsibilities of governance: in some
measure, he now had to respect the modern state and
its laws.
Another reversal by the former Supreme Leader
involved women’s rights. In 1963, he issued a fatwa in
direct contradiction of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s
granting of women’s suffrage.58 Yet following the
revolution, he announced that women had the duty
to vote and participate in all elections, and today the
Islamic Republic allows women to run in parliamentary
and city elections.
Examples abound of reversals by Khomeini. One
notable instance involved the lucrative sturgeon trade,
which was seen to be at risk. Prior to the revolution,
not only Khomeini but all Shiite jurists considered
the consumption of sturgeon haram; afterward,
however, seeking to bolster the industry, Khomeini
issued a fatwa declaring sturgeon halal (consumable).
Other practices newly permitted after the revolution
included autopsies, chess, women on television and in
movies, hearing a woman’s voice on radio, and listening
to nonreligious music.
Shiite mujtahids have differing views on modern
warfare, but most do not express these views publicly.
On the subject of suicide bombing, the Lebanese
cleric Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah claimed
in a 2007 interview that Khomeini believed in the
legitimacy of the practice but had reservations about
announcing this opinion publicly.59 (Fadlallah himself
conceded in the interview that he believed in the religious
legitimacy of suicide bombing.) In public, both
Khomeini and Khamenei have condemned suicide
bombings and the killing of civilians. The concealment
of such views by clerics may be done for social or political
A further example of concealment appears in the
memoir of Rafsanjani, who mentions an Iranian eye
surgeon who resided in the United States and remained
a follower of Khomeini. The surgeon asked Khomeini,
through Rafsanjani, if transplanting an eye from a
non-Muslim to a Muslim was allowed. Khomeini said
will as there are muftis, with each opinion of each mufti
a reflection.55
Any discussion of ijtihad must note the fluidity of
clerical rulings. A mujtahid can return to the text, discover
new evidence, make new arguments, or be convinced
by another’s reasoning and ultimately change
his views on a given matter. Therefore, a mujtahid’s
fatwa may differ not only from that of another mujtahid
but also from his own previous rulings.
A worshipper can learn about a mujtahid’s fatwa
from any of four sources:
■■ The mujtahid himself
■■ Two just worshippers (i.e., two worshippers who
have not been seen committing major sins)
■■ A person known to be reliable
■■ A mujtahid’s book of legal opinions.
As such, even though Ayatollah Khamenei has produced
no written record on the religious prohibitions
pertaining to nuclear weapons, his verbal statements
on the subject are considered his religious opinions, or
fatwas, and therefore binding on believers.
The Dynamism of Fatwas
Changing a fatwa is a common practice among Shiite
mujtahids. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the
Islamic Republic and one of the most widely followed
mujtahids of his time, changed his fatwas on many
issues. In his book Kashf al-Asrar (“The Revelation of
the Secrets”), published in 1944, he defended the monarchy
as a model of government, writing: “The clergy
never opposed the principle of the Sultanate. It even
supported monarchy most of the time.”56 But later,
while in exile in Najaf and seeking to oppose the shah,
he reversed course on his initial opinion, arguing that
the sultanate (monarchy) “is against Islam; it violates
the Islamic model for government and its rules.”57
While still a modest cleric and not yet a national
leader, Khomeini stated that both the modern tax
system in Iran—which included taxes beyond those
sanctioned by Islam—and mandatory military service
were against Islam (Kashf al-Asrar). But decades later,
when he came to power, the ayatollah issued a fatwa
instructing that all citizens obey all the government’s
20 Policy Focus #115
Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
chess playing, one mujtahid who had received his ijtihad
certificate from Khomeini himself protested this
ruling.64 This protest elicited a sharp response from
Khomeini, who argued that such legal principles
would require worshippers to return to a premodern
state of cave dwelling in the desert.
On the whole, the Iranian political leadership has
trusted the political rulings of both Ayatollah Khomeini
and Khamenei over those of other clerics. For
one thing, according to the principle of velayat-e faqih
the Supreme Leader’s views trump those of all other
jurists. For another, the Supreme Leader’s rulings have
tended to be more progressive than those of other mujtahids,
largely because the ayatollah must reconcile
religious principles with the social and political realities
of governance in a modern state.65 Other clerics are
not similarly constrained and are often out of touch
with such realities.
Iranian Political System
as Autocracy
At a first glance, the Islamic Republic may appear to
be a clerical government in which Shiite legal authority
structures the legal system, and the legitimacy of the
legal system stems from sharia (Islamic law). As such, it
would seem that the religious opinions of Shiite clerics
shape the legal and political direction of the state. Yet
a closer examination reveals a more nuanced picture in
both legal and political terms.
At least in theory, the Majlis (parliament) is the
exclusive source of legislation in the Islamic Republic.
It is true that laws produced by the Majlis must
be vetted to ensure they do not conflict with either
Islamic law or the Iranian constitution, but legislation
itself need not be rooted in Islam. In addition, Majlis
members must be ages thirty to seventy-five and hold
the following basic qualifications: belief in Islam and
the Islamic Republic, Iranian citizenship, faithfulness
to the constitution and the principle of velayate
faqih, possession of a master’s degree, and lack of a
criminal record. In the current Majlis, only 44 of the
285 members are clerics—with all 44 holding only a
junior religious ranking. In fact, Majlis speaker Ali
Larijani is a layman with no religious training. Before
yes, but that the surgeon was not to quote Khomeini
on this ruling for fear of provoking some of the more
conservative mujtahids who disagreed with him on
this matter. In another case, Sadeq Tabatabai, brotherin-
law of Khomeini’s younger son, Ahmad, cites in his
memoir an incident in which he asked Ayatollah Abu
al-Qasem Khoi whether it was lawful for men to shave
their beards. Khoi responded that no religious tenet
banned the practice, so Tabatabai asked Khoi why he
had written in his book of legal codes that shaving
one’s beard was not permitted. In reply, “[Khoi] smiled
and did not say anything.”60
Temporary marriages between a Muslim man and
a Christian or Jewish woman have also been the subject
of implicit clerical approval. Ayatollah Hossein
Boroujerdi, the foremost marja in Iran until his death
in 1961, is known to have backed such a practice, yet
he never issued a fatwa on the matter and indeed made
efforts to conceal his viewpoint. One possible explanation
is that at one time Muhammad Reza Shah wanted
to marry a non-Muslim woman, and Ayatollah Boroujerdi
did not want to legitimize such a union.61 Moreover,
a former student of Boroujerdi’s remembers once
asking him why he changed his fatwas so frequently.
“Every day I am a new man,” Boroujerdi replied.62
Regarding WMD, even if one disputes the Islamic
legality of using WMD, one cannot ignore the Quran’s
justification for the production of such weapons to
terrify an enemy. Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi likely used
a similar justification to endorse the production of
nuclear weapons. In his book The Islamic Revolution: A
Wave of Political Change in History, he writes,
The most advanced weapons must be produced inside
our country even if our enemies don’t like it. There is
no reason that [our enemies] have the right to produce
a special type of weapon, while other countries
are deprived of it.63
Not all pro-government religious authorities agree
on all issues. Issues related to women come in for particular
dispute, such as whether women should cover
their head, face, and hands, or appear on television.
Pro-regime mujtahids also disagree on the lawfulness
of music and whether playing chess, without betting,
is permissible. When Khomeini ruled in favor of
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Jurisprudence, Expediency, and WMD Mehdi Khalaji
Islamic law to promote regime expediency
through the Expediency Council.67
Given this last conclusion, how can we characterize
the Supreme Leader’s relationship to the clerical establishment?
In theory, the Assembly of Experts—which
consists of high-ranking clerics supposedly elected
by the public and vetted by the Guardian Council—
appoints the Supreme Leader, supervises his activities
and decisions, and dismisses him if he fails to fulfill his
constitutional duties. But the Supreme Leader, both
directly and through the Guardian Council, has great
influence over the makeup of the Assembly of Experts,
in effect appointing the assembly members himself.
According to Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e
faqih, all clerics and Shiite worshippers are subject
to the orders of the Supreme Leader, who also serves
as the ruling jurist, or “jurist of jurists,” in the public
sphere. This doctrine is premised on the view that
the ruling jurist is the heir and divine beneficiary
of the Prophet Muhammad and the representative
of the infallible Hidden Imam. Thus, the Supreme
Leader has authority (velayat) over all earthly matters,
beyond even sharia and the country’s constitution,
granting him—at least in principle, though
with practical limits—enormous powers over society
in general and the juridical hierarchy in particular.
Given the Supreme Leader’s authority as a jurist,
he holds ultimate clout over any other mujtahid in
granting fatwas regarding nuclear policy—a public
rather than personal issue.
Politics of the Extraordinary
Islamic law is considered by Islamists to be the only
worthwhile lens through which to view worldly affairs
and achieve spiritual salvation.68 In turn, the implementation
of sharia is the Islamists’ principal goal. Yet
when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he soon
understood that sharia, as it existed, was not compatible
with the requirements of modern social and political
life. In a letter to his disciple, Muhammad Hassan
Qadiri, Khomeini wrote, “The government cannot be
run by existing jurisprudence.”69 As a result, Khomeini
invoked the principle of maslaha—which literally
means “well-being” but in the juridical sense signifies
his tenure in parliament, he headed state radio and
television for ten years and was a deputy commander
in the IRGC.
The Guardian Council—which consists of six
senior Shiite jurists (all ayatollahs) appointed by the
Supreme Leader and six lawyers nominated by the
head of the judiciary and confirmed by the Majlis—is
the body responsible for reviewing all laws for constitutionality
and conformity with Islamic law. If a law
is found to be insufficient in either of these areas, it is
returned to the Majlis for modification and then subjected
to a second review by the Guardian Council. If
this second review still yields an objection, the legislation
is passed to the Expediency Council, whose members
are appointed by and advise the Supreme Leader.
(Expediency Council members are not required to be
clerics or experts in Islamic law, and the body lacks
independent authority.) If the Expediency Council
decides that the bill advances the interests of the country,
even while contradicting Islamic law or the constitution,
it can approve the bill and ask the president
to do the same. Three important conclusions can be
drawn from this process:
1. The legislature is not necessarily bound by
Islamic law. If legislators believe a bill serves the
interests of the regime, the bill can ultimately be
passed with the help of the Expediency Council.
2. The clerical establishment, as the Shiite
legal authority, has no systematic relationship
with the legislature.66 Only a small proportion
of Majlis members are clerics, and
members are not required to consult with
the clerical establishment before passing a
law. Even members of the Guardian Council
are not appointed by the clerical establishment:
half are appointed by the Supreme
Leader and half by the judiciary and Majlis.
3. The Supreme Leader is the ultimate source of
Islamic legitimacy for laws passed in the Majlis.
A unique pillar in the legal system, the Supreme
Leader also has sole authority to overrule
22 Policy Focus #115
Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
rituals (known as the Pillars of Islam) in favor of the
regime’s needs. Despite the groundshaking effects
of Khomeini’s stance, no other Iranian cleric dared
oppose him openly.
Interestingly, the only figure to even speak publicly
of Khomeini’s interpretation was current Supreme
Leader Ali Khamenei. In a Friday sermon in 1987,
then president Khamenei addressed the proper role
of an Islamic government in contract negotiations
between business owners and employees. In response
to Khomeini’s claim that the government can force
employers to accept certain terms, Khamenei clarified
that this did not mean “any conditions” but rather
only conditions acceptable under Islamic law.74 Khomeini
replied swiftly and bluntly to Khamenei’s parsing,
which reflected a mainstream opinion among Shiite
From your sermon during Friday prayers it seems that
you do not believe that government is the absolute
authority that God has given to the Prophet and is the
most important order of God and precedes all other
orders. You said in your sermon that I said that “the
government has authority only within the framework
of Islamic law.” This is the absolute opposite of what
I said...The government can unilaterally abrogate any
religious agreement made by it with the people if it
believes that the agreement is against the interests of
the country and Islam. The government can prevent
any Islamic law—whether related to rituals or not—
from being implemented if it sees its implementation
as harmful to the interests of Islam.75
During the Islamic Republic’s first decade, Khomeini
did not hesitate to violate the constitution at will. His
orders to form the Supreme Council for the Cultural
Revolution, the Special Clerical Court, and the Expediency
Council (the last of which was created in February
1988)76 were all unconstitutional. The Expediency
Council in particular was formed because Khomeini
knew he would need assistance in identifying and
assessing each individual case in which maslaha might
be applicable. When members of the Majlis protested
that the Expediency Council was unconstitutional,
Khomeini responded in a letter:
You are right. God willing, we are planning to arrange
everything in a way based on the constitution.
public interest, government expediency, or, as it is
known in political philosophy, raison d’état.
Long before the Islamic Revolution, Sunni rulers
and jurists called upon maslaha to justify acts of
“necessity.”70 If a tenet of Islamic law was seen as hindering
the expediency of an Islamic government or
the public interest, the mufti could suspend the law as
needed. Sunni jurists felt such suspensions were justified
on the grounds that sharia is meant to safeguard
the interests of the community and Islamic government.
71 Often chafing at such rulings were the minority
Shiites, who lacked political power and opposed
the suspension of divine law to resolve worldly, political
issues. In response, several Sunni jurists argued that
the notion of maslaha in Islam differs from the Western
concept of raison d’état or utilitarian principles
such as those elaborated by Jeremy Bentham, John
Stuart Mill, and others.
The first difference is grounded in a transcendental
conception of legal morality, where maslaha and
its antinomy, mafsada (literally, harm), cannot be
restricted to this life alone but must take into account
the hereafter as well. The second is that maslaha cannot
be reduced to the material aspect of the world and
certainly cannot be reduced to hedonism, but must be
equally based on corporeal and spiritual human needs.
Finally, the third assumption is that maslaha dictated
by religion constitutes the foundation of worldly based
maslahas, with the consequence that the former has
precedence over and controls the latter.72
The extent to which Ayatollah Khomeini shocked
the Shiite establishment by adopting maslaha as he did
cannot be understated. Indeed, this step was unprecedented
in the history of Shiism. The effect of Khomeini’s
move was to aid the Iranian regime and allow
the state to function in the modern world, as compared
with the antiquated concept of government in
Islamic jurisprudence. In line with some of Khomeini’s
disciples, like Ahmad Azari Qomi, who claimed that
the interests of the regime precede all Islamic principles
and that, if necessary, Islamic principles—including
the unity of God—can be suspended,73 Khomeini
himself wrote that sharia is not binding for the jurist
ruler, who has the right to ignore prayer and other
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Jurisprudence, Expediency, and WMD Mehdi Khalaji
when the reformist Majlis decided to revise Iran’s press
law to permit greater freedom of speech, Khamenei
sent a letter to the Majlis to be read by the speaker,
Mehdi Karrubi, asking parliament to halt the amendment
process because the revised text “is not legitimate
and is against the interests of the country and Islam.”83
Khomeini’s intervention amounted to a hokm-e hokoumati
(governmental decree), an order issued by the
leader that supersedes all national and Islamic law. A
recent example of a hokm-e hokoumati was Khamenei’s
April 19, 2011, letter to Intelligence Minister Heydar
Moslehi, ordering that he remain in power despite
his dismissal by President Ahmadinezhad (and even
though the president has the right, under the constitution,
to dismiss government ministers). Khamenei’s
move widened the rift between himself and Ahmadinezhad,
and, in protest, Ahmadinezhad did not attend
cabinet sessions for twelve days. More recently, Khamenei
appointed Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi
as head of the committee in charge of mediating
a dispute between the president and parliament.84 This
was an obvious effort to weaken the Expediency Council
and interfere in its affairs.
In sum, since the ruling jurist has absolute authority
and exclusive control in defining regime expediency, he
can suspend all Islamic and constitutional laws whenever
he chooses to do so. This means that laws have no
independent authority; they depend entirely on the
Supreme Leader’s validation. In such a system, politics
never become normalized through the stable functioning
of state institutions. Instead, every situation
has the potential to be interpreted as extraordinary
and manipulated to the liking of the Supreme Leader,
possibly against the decisions of parliament, the president,
and the judiciary. Thus what might be called the
“politics of the extraordinary” concentrates enormous
power in the hands of the ruling jurist and defines the
essence of the Islamic Republic.
Supreme Leader Khamenei has stated that the production,
stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are
forbidden under Islam. But his recent language on
the subject has become more equivocal, emphasizing
What happened in these years was related to the war.
The expediency of the regime and Islam necessitated
that the entangled knots get untied quickly in favor of
the people and Islam.77
In April 1989, following the conclusion of the Iran-
Iraq War, Khomeini ordered that the constitution be
revised, paving the way for the formal incorporation of
maslaha into the Iranian political system. This revision
vindicated the long-held claim by Khomeini that the
initial constitution did not adequately recognize the
authorities of the ruling jurist.78 In one speech, Khomeini
described the initial constitution as imperfect,
and continued:
According to Islam, the clergy is entitled to much
more [authority]. In order to prevent some [secular]
intellectuals from opposing the constitution, [the
constitutional assembly] yielded a bit…[but the ruling
jurist’s authority] is actually much greater.79
A key change associated with the 1989 revision was
the addition of “absolute” to the title of the ruling
jurist: velayat-e faqih thus became velayat-e motlaqehye
In addition to further empowering the ruling jurist,
the amendment process led to a formal definition of
the Expediency Council’s roles,80 which included the
following: advising the ruling jurist; resolving disputes
between the Majlis and the Guardian Council; approving
bills ratified by the Guardian Council; and advising
the ruling jurist on revisions or amendments to the
constitution. In a much later interview with Khabar
newspaper, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani also cited the
authority of the Expediency Council to create laws.81
Of the forty-four current members of the Expediency
Council, thirty-five—along with the council’s head—
are Supreme Leader appointees who serve five-year
terms.82 Ex officio members consist of the president,
Majlis speaker, judiciary head, and Guardian Council
members. Under Khamenei, the Expediency Council
has been subject to substantial structural changes that
have rendered it a sophisticated bureaucracy.
However complex the Expediency Council has
become, the Supreme Leader retains the right to intervene
directly as needed, a right he has wielded on several
important occasions. Thus, on August 6, 2000,
24 Policy Focus #115
Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
president to establish a shared understanding of the
“national interest” that could strengthen those institutions
and foster nascent democratic processes. In practice,
however, maslaha has become a means of freeing
the political system from the hold of Islamic law, further
undermining Iran’s democratic institutions and
consolidating the Supreme Leader’s control over state
politics, in effect laying the foundation for a clericalmilitary
dictatorship in Iran. Iranian nuclear decisionmaking,
therefore, bears the significant imprint of one
man’s personality and politics—an imprint that may
be unaffected by the will of other men, the decisions of
other institutions, or, most ironically, the legal scruples
or moral dictates of his own religion.
only the prohibition on their use and not on their production
or stockpiling. And should the needs of the
Islamic Republic or the Muslim umma change, requiring
the use of nuclear weapons, the Supreme Leader
could just as well alter his position in response. This
means that, ultimately, the Islamic Republic is unconstrained—
even by religious doctrine—as it moves
toward the possible production and storing of nuclear
In principle, at least, the emergence of maslaha or
raison d’état in the ideology of the Islamic Republic
represented a step forward in recognizing the realities
of running a modern state. The principle might have
been channeled toward allowing the parliament and
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 25
Notes Mehdi Khalaji
1. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, speech addressing Revolutionary Guard commanders and others, July 31, 1981. For the
text of the speech, see Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Nour, vol. 15 (Tehran: Entesharat-e vezarat-e farhang va ershad-e eslami,
1378), p. 107.
2. Fareed Zakaria, “They May Not Want the Bomb,” Newsweek, May 23, 2009. The extended text reads as follows: “The
regime wants to be a nuclear power but could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program (which could make the
challenge it poses more complex). What’s the evidence? Well, over the last five years, senior Iranian officials at every
level have repeatedly asserted that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has
quoted the regime’s founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asserted that such weapons were ‘un-Islamic.’
The country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons
as immoral. In a subsequent sermon, he declared that ‘developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden
under Islam.’ Last year [2008] Khamenei reiterated all these points after meeting with the head of the International
Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, of course, they could all be lying. But it seems odd for a regime that
derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to
develop them. It would be far shrewder to stop reminding people of Khomeini’s statements and stop issuing new fatwas
against nukes.”
3. See J. P. Perry Robinson, Dual Technology and Perceptions of Iranian Chemical and Biological Weapons (Harvard Sussex
Program, July 26, 2005),
4. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Omid va Delvapasi Khaterat-e Sal-e 1364, be ehtemam-e Sara Lahouti (Tehran: Daftar-e
Nashr-e Maref-e Enghelab, 2008), p. 61.
5. This letter is published in Montazeri’s memoirs: Hossein Ali Montazeri, Memoire (Paris: Entesharat-e Enghelab-e Eslami,
2001), p. 490. See also Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Karnameh va Khaterat-e Hashemi Rafsanjani, Sal-e 1367, ed.
Alireza Hashemi (Tehran: Daftar-e Nashr-e Maref-e Enghelab, 2011), pp. 578–581.
6. On April 19, 1995, Khamenei said, “Americans should not go here and there and say [nonsense such as]
that ‘Iran is trying to wage war’ or ‘explode a nuclear bomb’…They should know that Iran is not [a] warmonger.
According to our principles we oppose war. Our principles entail that we convey the message
of friendship, peace, love, security, and serenity.” The transcript of this speech [in Persian] is available at The next month, on May 3, he reiterated his warning to his
critics: “They [the West] accuse us of making nuclear and chemical bombs. This is a lie. They know themselves that
this is a lie. They do not know the truth and are unable to know it” (transcript available at
7. Ali Khamenei, speech, March 21, 2003,
8. Ali Khamenei, speech, March 23, 2004, For his views on the
importance of Iran’s nuclear program, see
9. Robert Collier, “Nuclear Weapons Unholy, Iran Says: Islam Forbids Use, Clerics Proclaim,” San Francisco Chronicle,
October 31, 2003,
10. Ali Khamenei, speech, March 21, 2005,
11. Ali Khamenei, speech, June 4, 2006,
12. Ali Khamenei, speech, November 9, 2006,
13. Ali Khamenei, speech, June 4, 2009,
14. Ali Khamenei, speech, February 19, 2010,
15. Ali Khamenei, “Message,” April 17, 2010,
16. In a speech in reaction to the Arab Spring, Khamenei suggested that responsibility for NATO’s no-fly zone and military
action against Libya lay with Muammar Qadhafi’s relinquishing of his country’s nuclear program: “[T]hough Qadhafi
was anti-Western in his first years, in recent years he has done lots of favors for Westerners. The West also saw how Qadhafi
ended Libya’s nuclear activities due to an empty threat. He shipped out [his nuclear components] and gave them
to the West…[L]ook at our people’s situation and compare [it] with [the Libyan] people’s situation…[The West] sanctioned
[Iran], made military threats, said we [will] attack you…but Iran’s officials not only didn’t back off but, despite the
[enemy’s desire], multiplied their nuclear capability every year.” Transcript of the March 21, 2011, speech is available at
17. See Khamenei’s fatwa “How to Acquire the Fatwas of a Jurist?” (available at
18. Muhammad’s army used siege catapults against the people of Taef and then massacred men, women, and children alike,
Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
26 Policy Focus #115
according to legal and historical sources. See Sheikh Muhammad ibn Hasan Tusi, al-Mabsout fil Fiqh, vol. 2 (Qom: al-
Maktaba al-Murtazaviya, 1388), p. 11.
19. Bani Nazir (or Banu Nadir) was one of two main Jewish tribes in Medina that preceded the emergence of Islam. Following
a negotiation over a blood-money payment being collected from the town’s Muslim community and Jews’ promise
to contribute to the sum, Muhammad personally became convinced of Bani Nazir’s enmity and suspected a conspiracy
against him. He later annulled a peace treaty with the tribe and declared war on its people.
20. Sayyed Ali Tabatabai, Riaz al-Masael fi Tahqiq al-Ahkam bi Dalael, vol. 8 (Qom: Moassassat Aal al-Bait li Ihyae Attorath,
1999), pp. 69–70. The fifteenth-century Shiite jurist Allameh Helli concurred that if defeating the enemy requires
attacking and killing women, children, and elders, then such steps must be taken. Helli considered such an opinion
the consensus among his jurist peers. See Muhammad Hasan Najafi, Javaher al-Kalam fi Sharh-e Sharae al-Eslam, vol.
21 (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Torath al-Arabi, 1992), p. 71; Sad al-Din abu al-Qasem ibn Barraj, al-Mohazzab, vol. 1 (Qom:
Jameat al-Modarressin, 1986), p. 302; Fakhr al-Din abu Abdullah ibn Edris, al-Saraer al-Havi li Tahrir al-Fatawi, vol. 3
(Qom: Jameat al-Modarressin, 1369), p. 7.
21. “Dar al-Islam,” “Dar al-Kofr,” and “Dar al-Harb” are three significant legal terms in Islamic jurisprudence that have fundamental
implications for how an Islamic government treats individuals. This is one of the main obstacles to recognizing
the notion of “citizen” in an Islamic legal system.
22. Quran (8:60). See also A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (New York: Touchstone, 1955), p. 204.
23. Sayyed Javad Varai, “Mabani-ye Fiqhi-ye Amalyat-e Shahdat Talabaneh,” Hokoumat-e Eslami, no. 27 (Spring 2003).
24. The Zoroastrian representative in Iran’s Majlis officially protested against the ayatollah’s statements. For his statement
(in Persian) see
25. For a critical study on jurists’ view about offensive jihad, see Nematollah Salehi Najaf Abadi, Jihad dar Islam (Tehran:
Nashr-e Nei, 2007), pp. 15–109.
26. Hossein Ali Montazeri, Resaleh-ye Tozih al-Masael (Tehran: Entesharat-e Sarai, 2002), p. 343.
27. Ibid., p. 344.
28. For an examination of the distinction between civilians and combatants in historical context, see Helen M. Kinsella,
The Image before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction between Combatant and Civilian (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 2011); Anicee Van Engeland, Civilian or Combatant: A Challenge for the 21st Century (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2011); Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust War: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd ed.
(New York: Basic Books, 2000).
29. Interestingly, Judaism also rejects the understanding of truth telling as a universal moral absolute. In the words of one
contemporary Jewish writer, “[U]nlike Saint Augustine and Kant, the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud present a more
nuanced view of truth-telling. Both emphasize that while telling the truth is very important, there are instances in which
lying is permitted and, on occasion, even mandated. In other words, while truth-telling is an important but not absolute
value, in at least six circumstances, Jewish law permits or even obligates us to lie, exaggerate or otherwise mislead
another.” These six circumstances are: (1) to prevent future harm; (2) to right a past wrong done when dealing with a
dishonest or deceptive person or government; (3) when the effect of telling the truth will cause unnecessary hurt; (4) to
create peace or an otherwise good outcome; (5) because a question invades one’s privacy; and (6) when exaggerating to
make a point and the exaggeration is understood. As quoted and paraphrased from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code of
Jewish Ethics: Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy (New York: Bell Tower, 2006), pp. 423–424.
30. Morteza Motahhari, Falsafeh-ye Akhlaq (Tehran: Entesharat-e Sadra, 2003), p. 78.
31. Saadi Shirazi, Golestan, ed. Gholam Hossein Youssefi (Tehran: Entesharat-e Kharazmi, 1368), p. 58.
32. Abu Hamid Ghazali, Ihya al-Ulum Addin, vol. 3 (Cairo: no publisher, 1358), p. 146.
33. Motahhari, Falsafeh, p. 79.
34. Ibid., p. 82.
35. Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Dorous-e Falsafeh-ye Akhlaq (Tehran: Entesharat-e Etelat, 1997), pp. 89–90.
36. For a more extensive discussion about lying in Shiite jurisprudence, see Ruhollah Khomeini, al-Makasib al-Moharrama,
vol. 2 (Qom: Moassesseh-ye Ismailian, 1968); Morteza Ansari, al-Makasib al-Moharrama (Qom: no publisher/date);
Muhammad Mohsen Faiz Kashani, al-Mohajjat al-Baiza fi Tahzib al-Ihya, vol. 5 (Qom: Manshourat Jemaat Almodarresin,
1986); Muhammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, Noqteh-haye Aqaz dar Akhlaq-e Amali (Tehran: Entesharat-e Daftar-e
Nashr-e Farhang-e Eslami, 2009).
37. Khomeini speech, July 31, 1981.
38. For more on taqiyya, esoteric knowledge, and jihad in non-Twelver Shiism, see Yaron Friedman, The Nusayri-Alawis:
An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria (Boston: Brill, 2010), pp. 142–152.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 27
Notes Mehdi Khalaji
39. See L. Clarke, “The Rise and Decline of Taqiyya in Twelver Shiism,” in Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Theology, Philosophy
and Mysticism in Muslim Thought, ed. Todd Lawson (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005), pp. 46–63.
40. Abu Ali Tabarsi, Majma al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Quran, vol. 1 (Beirut: Dar Ihya Attorath al-Arabi, 1995), p. 430.
41. Ansari, al-Makasib, p. 320.
42. Khomeini speech, July 31, 1981.
43. For instance, in his mystically inflected treatise Kalamat-e Maknouneh, intended for a select audience, Mohsen Faiz
Kashani cites hadith that he would not cite in his large, popular collection: Kayvan Samii, Zendegani-ye Sardar Kaboli,
vol. 1 (Tehran: Ketabforoushi-ye Zavar, 1984), p. 133.
44. Muhammad Baqr Majlisi, Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 2 (Tehran: al-Maktaba al-Islamiya, 1995), p. 183.
45. In traditional Iranian residential architecture, “exterior” (birouni) is set in contrast to “interior” (andarooni). The interior
refers to the private quarters of the house designed for immediate family members. Guests and strangers are not
allowed to even see the interior, let alone enter it. The “exterior” is designed as an area where the house owner receives his
guests, or where guests stay for few nights.
46. On Malamatiyeh, see Sadra Sviri, “Hakim Tirmidhi and the Malamati Movement in Early Sufism,” in The Heritage of
Sufism vol. 1, ed. L. Lewisohn (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1999), For
a recent study on Qalandariyeh, see Muhammad Reza Shafii Kadkani, Qalandariyeh dar Tarikh, Degardisi-ha-ye yek
Ideology (Tehran: Sokhan, 1986).
47. Tajodin Hossein Kharazmi, Sharh Fosous al-Hekam (Qom: Tahqiq Hasan Hasanzadeh Amoli, Boustan-e Ketab, 2008),
pp. 1024–1054. See also Christian Jambet, Le Cache et l’Apparent (Paris: L’Herne, 2003); Henri Corbin, Histoire de la
philosophie islamique (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), pp. 66–69.
48. Corbin, Histoire, p. 76.
49. Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 22–36.
50. Muhammad Ali Amir-Moezi and Christian Jambet, Qu’est-ce que le Shiisme? (Paris: Fayard, 2004), pp. 33, 197.
51. Does the ruling jurist’s legitimacy stem from the people’s will or reflect God’s will? This question has been at the center
of a two-decade-long debate over velayat-e faqih—whether it refers to an ordinary, elected jurist or one selected,
inspired, and protected by God. In this discussion, selection by God would obviously mean inspiration and protection
by God as well, including protection against being second-guessed by the Assembly of Experts. See Abdullah Javadi
Amoli, Velayat-e Faqih (Qom: Asra, 1999); Abdullah Javadi Amoli, Piramoun-e Wahi va Rahbari (Qom: Azahra, 2001);
Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Islam: Siasat va Hokoumat, 4 vols. (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1999); Mostafa Kawakebian,
“Nazariyeh-ye Mashrouiyat-e elahi-ye velayat-e faqih,”
52. On the concept of velayat-e faqih, see Ahmad Kazemi Mousavi, Ulamaye Shia va Qodrat-e Siasi (Bethesda, MD: IBEX
Publishers, 2004), pp. 125–150; Said Hajarian, Az Shahid-e Qodsi ta Shahid-e Bazari (Tehran: Tarhe no, 2001), pp.
53. See Muhammad Kazem Khorasani, Kefayet al-Usul (Qom: Moassassa Aal al-Bayt le Ihya Atorath, 1998), pp. 463–464.
54. Wael B. Hallaq, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 62, 88.
55. Ibid., p. 469.
56. Ruhollah Khomeini, Kashf al-Asrar (no publisher, 1944), pp. 186–187.
57. Javadi Amoli, Velayat-e Faqih, p. 13.
58. Rouhollah Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Noor, vol. 1, p. 78.
59. Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, interview by Mona Sokriya in An Sanawat wa Mawaqef wa Shakhsiyyat (Beirut: Dar
Annahar, 2007), p. 170.
60. Sadeq Tabatabai, Memoire, vol. 1 (Tehran : Entesharat-e Orooj, 1387), p. 134.
61. Interview with Muhammad Taqi Falsafi, in Tarikh-e Shafahi-e Enqeleb-e Eslami, Paydayesh and Tahavvolat-e Howzeh-ye
Elmiyeh-ye Qom, ed. Gholam Reza Karbaschi (Qom: Bonyad-e Tarikh-e Enqelab-e Eslami, 1374), pp. 183–185.
62. Interview with Ahmad Ali Ahmadi, ibid., p.160.
63. Associated Press, “Top Cleric: Iran Has Right to ‘Special Weapons,’” June 14, 2010,
64. Hajarian, Az Shahid-e Qodsi, p. 112.
65. Abbas Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shiism (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009).
66. Iran’s first constitution, adopted in 1906, ensured that the parliament’s laws did not conflict with Islamic law; at least five
mujtahids were required to supervise the passage of bills before parliament. Shiite ulama, or religious authorities, would
Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji Nuclear Fatwa
28 Policy Focus #115
have to recommend twenty mujtahids to parliament and, in turn, five would be selected in a lottery. It is possible that the
1906 constitution drew a more direct connection between the legislature and the clerical establishment than does the
Islamic Republic’s current constitution. See Asghar Schirazi, The Constitution of Iran: Politics and the State in the Islamic
Republic (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997).
67. Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi Amoli, a pro-regime cleric, cites three functions of the ruling jurist: to issue fatwas that are
mandatory for all his followers but not for other mujtahids and their followers; to judge in legal disputes, in which
the parties involved and everyone else is required to comply with his decision; and to govern the Islamic umma and
issue governmental decrees (hokm-e hokoumati). On this last count, for example, if the ruling jurist says relations with
Israel or the United States should be severed, such a decree is mandatory not only for the jurist’s religious followers but
for all other mujtahids and their followers as well. See Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, “Violation of Ruling Jurist’s Verdict Is
Illegal Even by Other Mujtahids” (in Persian), May 4, 2011, Fars News Agency,
68. In the Shiite tradition, most Islamic legal codes regarding the public sphere, such as performing Friday prayer, receiving
punishment for “immoral” sexual activities, or paying religious taxes (qisas), are believed to be suspended until the
return of the Mahdi—the Infallible Imam of Twelver Shiism who will create a global government and eliminate all
injustice and oppression. Khomeini’s theory of the guardianship of the jurist (velayat-e faqih) asserts that even though
the Twelfth Imam has not yet returned, the Shiite community has a duty to follow sharia, and this duty requires a government.
An ideal government, the thinking goes, is best ruled by an expert in Islamic law, who understands the contents
of sharia and how to implement it.
69. Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Nour, vol. 21, p. 149.
70. In Arabic, the term for “necessity” is darura, as derived from the root darar, meaning “harm” or “damage.” Darar therefore
denotes dire hardship. In a loose legal context, darura represents both the state of necessity and its cause (sabab),
which justifies altering a legal injunction to avoid imminent harm. On these issues, see Izzi Dien, Islamic Law: From
Historical Foundations to Contemporary Practice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), p. 82.
71. Shiite jurists hold that the divine order can be explained only by a divine text (nass) or doctrines and concepts derived
from such a text. Since maslaha is not based on a divine text but on rational speculation, it cannot be relied on for
understanding the order of God. See Muhammad Reza Mozafar, Usul al-Fiqh, vols. 3–4 (Qom: Moassasat Annashr
sl-Islami, 2009), pp. 207–208. For a brilliant account of the Sunni attempt to reconcile sharia with the requirements of
the modern state, see Wael Hallaq, Sharia: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2009), pp. 443–499.
72. Hallaq, Sharia: Theory, p. 511.
73. According to remarks in the July 10, 1989, edition of Resalat newspaper.
74. According to remarks in the December 17, 1987, edition of Jomhouri-ye Eslami newspaper.
75. Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Nour, vol. 20, p. 170.
76. Khomeini appointed six jurist members of the Guardian Council to the Expediency Council. The council included
Khamenei (president), Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (Majlis speaker), Abdul Karim Moussavi Ardebili (judiciary chief ),
Mohammad Reza Tavasoli (head of the Supreme Leader’s office), Muhammad Mousavi Khoini-ha, and Mir Hossein
Mousavi (prime minister). In his letter, Khomeini stated that “the expediency of the regime is one of the important matters
whose neglect may lead to the defeat of beloved Islam.”
77. Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Nour, vol. 21, p. 56.
78. Ibid., vol. 11, p. 133.
79. Ibid., vol. 6, p. 519.
80. For the political consequences of Khomeini’s invocation of maslaha, see Hajarian, Az Shahid-e Qodsi. For the contents
of the debate regarding the Expediency Council, see the transcript from the Council for the Revision of the Constitution: More information on the history of the Expediency
Council is available in the following sources:
• Muhammad Sadeq Shariati, Barasi-ye Fiqhi va Hoqouqi-e Majma-ye Tashkhis-e Maslahat-e Nizam (Qom: Boustane
Ketab, 2001);
• Muhammad Javad-e Arasta, Majma-ye Tashkhis-e Maslahat-e Nizam az Didgah-ye Fiqhi va Hoqouqi (Tehran:
Kanoun-e Andisheh-ye Javan, 2009);
• Sayyed Hossein Hashemi, Majma-ye Tashkhis-e Maslahat-e Nizam, Tahlil-e Mabani-ye Fiqhi va Hoqouqi (Qom:
Markaz-e Motaleat va Pajouhesh-ha-ye Farhangi, 2006);
• Muhammad Baqr Faqih, Barasi-ye Tahlil-e Vazaef-e Majma-ye Tashkhis-e Maslahat-e Nizam (Tehran: Payam-e
Yousef, 2002);
• Ali Ahmadi, Majma-ye Tashkhis-e Maslahat-e Nizam; Barasi-ye Siasi-Hoqouqi (Tehran: Markaz-e Asnad-e
Enqelab-e Eslami, 2004);
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 29
Notes Mehdi Khalaji
• Seif Allah Sarami, Ahkam-e Hokoumati va Maslahat (Tehran: Markaz-e Tahqiqat-e Strategic-e Majma-ye Tashkhise
Maslahat-e Nizam, Nashr-e Abir, 2000).
For Rafsanjani’s views on the Expediency Council, see:
• Abbas Bashiri, Pishineh va Karnameh-ye Majma-ye Tashkhis-e Maslahat-e Nizam; Goft-o-Gou ba Hashemi Rafsanjani
(Tehran: Sadaf, 2002);
• Masoud Safiri, Haqiqat-ha va Maslahat-ha, Goft-Gou ba Hashemi Rafsanjani (Tehran: Nahsr-e Nai, 2008).
In addition, several Tehran publishing houses have produced collections of approved regulations by the Expediency
Council. For a history of the “House of Maslaha” in Iran, see Feraidoun Adamiyat and Homa Nateq, Afkar-e Ejtemai
va Siasi va Eqtesadi dar Asare Montasher Nashodeh Doran-e Qajar (Germany: Entesharat-e Navid, 1989), pp. 189–220.
81. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, interview, March 22, 2011,
82. The existing term will expire February 27, 2012.
83. The text of Khamenei’s letter is available at
84. See Khamenei’s appointment letter:
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