28 September 2012
Professor Ali Ansari
(Former Chatham House Expert)


At the heart of the continuing nuclear impasse between Iran and the international community is the absence of one particularly valuable commodity: trust. With the goodwill necessary to underpin any trust also fast dissipating there is an urgent need for some creative diplomacy to re-energise discussions. It is increasingly difficult to avoid the sense of diplomatic exhaustion permeating the chanceries and foreign ministries of the negotiating powers. 

A good example of the problems that persist is reflected in the latest Iranian diplomatic offensive, which has sought to emphasise the centrality of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei's fatwa, outlawing nuclear weapons on the basis that they contradict Islamic law. This fatwa argue Iran's diplomats is a juridical ruling that is religiously binding on the officials of the Islamic Republic. So determined have some been to stress the validity of this fatwa that they can barely disguise their indignation at the scepticism that is regularly expressed, occasionally responding with an acute display of grievance that their religious sentiments can be so easily dismissed.

Herewith of course, lies the problem with this particular approach. Religion and politics have never particularly mixed well, neither in the secular West nor more curiously in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although Ayatollah Khamenei's pronouncements are both encouraging and intriguing, it is not at all clear that they amount to an unqualified binding religious ruling. Fatwas as a rule, are understood to be religious opinions, or judgements that are meant to be binding on the followers of a particular jurist. Although fatwas are issued throughout the Muslim world, they are much more prominent and part of the theological structure of the Shia Muslim community, with its hierarchy of clerics, expert in the finer aspects of Shia jurisprudence. The most senior of these clerics, more commonly known by the title Ayatollah (sign of God), are popularly credited with the knowledge and insight to issue binding judgments.

Traditionally this may have been a handful of the most senior clerics, whose erudition was manifest in copious publications of opinions on Islamic jurisprudence. These days however, grade inflation has even extended to the seminaries in Qom, such that the number of Ayatollahs has grown dramatically since 1979, along with the concomitant privilege of issuing fatwas. 

Ayatollah Khamenei can of course lay claim, as the Supreme Leader, of being the most senior of these clerics, and more importantly having special privileges with respect to the issuing of fatwas on political and international matters. But it is worth keeping in mind that his theological credibility has taken a battering from both left and right in Iran: from those who despise his autocracy, as well as those who believe he is not hard-line enough. In short, Khamenei's pronouncements have rarely been the last word on anything in the fractious world of Iranian politics.

Breaking the Deadlock

Nevertheless, a fatwa rigorously presented, might be a basis on which to build a more constructive approach to solving the nuclear impasse. For a political system that boasts of its religious foundations it would be difficult to contradict a theologically sound religious ruling. In an ideal world, such a ruling would have both depth and breadth. By depth, one means clear and reasoned arguments drawn from Islamic scripture. By breadth, one means a judgment that is endorsed by as many senior Ayatollahs as one can garner. On both counts there is considerable room for improvement. 

Ayatollah Khamanei has effectively alienated every other senior Ayatollah in Qom, in large part because of his political mishandling of events in Iran. The one Ayatollah that might endorse his views is far to his right, and has in the past been prone to issuing fatwas that even Khamenei might demur from. At the other end of the spectrum, the one Ayatollah that did elucidate a commentary denouncing nuclear weapons, the late Ayatollah Montazeri, was dismissed and diminished by Khamenei in a shameless attempt to burnish his own religious authority.

Khamenei's pronouncements have to date been little more than that. They do not follow the procedure traditionally ascribed to fatwas; that is a question followed by a detailed exegesis outlining the theological grounds for the answer provided. Supporters of Khamenei argue that such is his authority that this is all he needs to do. However, even if one were to believe that, experience suggests that considerable room for manoeuvre remains. 

The Trust Gap

Here, we must turn our minds back to the last time a putative fatwa was issued with international ramifications, in this case against Salman Rushdie, and by Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and cleric of undisputedly higher religious and political authority than his successor. In this case, anxious to extract themselves from a protracted dispute, Iranian officials performed semantic acrobatics seeking to argue that Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a 'decree' (hokm) not a fatwa, and therefore it was not binding at all; or alternatively that as a religious ruling it was not politically binding. This eventually allowed them to reach an accommodation with Britain in 1998, by assuring the UK that the Iranian government would not seek the implementation of the fatwa.

What all this suggests is what more astute Iranian diplomats have already accepted, that 'the nuclear fatwa', may be a modest means to an end but it is far from being an end in itself. Far from being definitive, fatwas are themselves open to interpretation. It therefore needs to be buttressed, burnished and reinforced with clear theological reasoning, broadly endorsed to the point of being institutionalized within the legal framework of the country.

Above all it would need to be situated within a wider process of confidence building. The idea that the West should take Khamenei at his word, when few of his own compatriots would do so with confidence, reminds us - and should remind Iranians - that to trust is good, but to trust and verify is better.

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