Elliott Abrams

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Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The Case of the Phony Fatwa

by Elliott Abrams
November 18, 2013


It’s common knowledge that Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, has issued a fatwa banning the possession of nuclear weapons.

This “fact” has recently been cited by President Obama and by Secretary of State Kerry. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, the President said

the Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.

This month, Secretary Kerry said  “The supreme leader…says he has issued a fatwa, the highest form of Islamic prohibition against some activity, and he said that is to prohibit Iran from ever seeking a nuclear weapon. ”

Moreover, in April, 2012 then Secretary of State Clinton said this: “The other interesting development which you may have followed was the repetition by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that they would – that he had issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, against weapons of mass destruction. Prime Minister Erdogan and I discussed this at some length, and I’ve discussed with a number of experts and religious scholars.”

The existence of this fatwa is being used to suggest that Iran my well not be seeking nuclear weapons after all, and this fact would make a successful negotiation with Iran more likely.

The problem is, there is no such fatwa. At least, no one has ever seen it or produced it.  A study by the web site MEMRI (full disclosure: I serve on its board) has found that no text of this alleged fatwa exists, nor is it present in any compilation of Khamenei’s fatwas. Khamenei has discussed possession of nuclear weapons in his speeches, especially in a 2004 sermon where he called production, possession, or use “problematic.” But a speech is not a fatwa, which is a jurisprudential ruling– and “problematic” is hardly a strong term announcing a prohibition. And the MEMRI analysis continues, “It should further be clarified that in the regime’s records of sermons by Khamenei, there is a clear differentiation between the jurisprudential ones – that is, the fatwas – and the political ones; the regime has placed this particular sermon in the political section, not the jurisprudential section, of the records.”

An August report from MEMRI covers this topic again:

On July 30, 2013, the Iranian Tasnimnews website, which is close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), published a compilation of 493 of the “newest” fatwas issued by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. These fatwas cover a wide range of issues, from political and cultural to religious, and include such topics as the treatment of Baha’is, trade with Israeli companies, religious purity and uncleanness, the status of women, and more. MEMRI’s examination of the compilation shows that it also includes several previously released fatwas, dating back to 2004. It is notable that a much-discussed fatwa, which regime officials claim was issued by Khamenei and prohibits the development, possession, or use of a nuclear bomb, is not included in this compilation.


So where is the fatwa? It is more than strange that, with the negotiations under way and the entire world focused on them, Iran has failed to produce a text. It is extremely unfortunate that our highest officials appear to take the existence of this fatwa for granted though none has ever seen it, read it, or had it analyzed by competent experts. Bad staff work, for sure; wishful thinking as well, trying to convince themselves that despite the evidence perhaps Iran really does not seek nuclear weapons after all. But here as always, wishful thinking is a dangerous basis for making national security policy.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Peter

    I’m confused. If there is no fatwa, then what did Hillary Clinton discuss with the numerous “experts and religious scholars”? That must have been quite a brainy and consequential confab.

  • Posted by Bernard

    Probably being kept in the same file with Obama’s birth certificate and school records .

  • Posted by Bernard

    @Perer: Probably how Obama’s White House was so instrumental in avoiding more bloodshed at Benghazi by not sending in any reinforcements or rescue……………………………………………. OR ….. “What difference does it make at this point ?”

  • Posted by p.herring

    Why is the term Obama Administration used. It is Obama and no other who is making the decisions and using his lackeys to make the actual statements.
    He seems desperate to clinch some “deal” with Teheran at the huge expense of putting the Saudis, Gulf States and Israel totally offside – where is this supposed Fatwa? Shia (read Iran)dreams are to become a dominant nuclear force in the middle east – in his wildest dreams does Obama believe that by giving into Khameini , signing the nuclear deal, easing sanctions etc. will help the USA – they hate the US as much or more that the “evil” Israel.
    Look at Obama’s recent track record – Putin has outwitted him at every turn in Syria – has Obama any thoughts for the human tragedy his indecisive blunders have caused.- there will be very few Syrian mothers who will name their first born boy Obama…..
    Egypt -he was totally fooled by Morsi , (helped by an extraordinarily incompetent Secretary of State)- did none of his advisers tell him what the Brotherhood was all about – Coptic Christians could have..
    Peace in Palestine – forcing Israel to release convicted murderers ….come on Obama …do you think this would work in the US? The pull out in Afghanistan in 2014 – almost there now – within months the Taliban will control the south and at least 60% of the country – yes, not your campaign, so guess you can be excused on this one.
    Now domestically – you’ve got your problems there – ObamaCare – great idea but ………….
    Fellow readers please respond with positive accomplishments the “Obama Administration” has achieved – I just can’t think of any….
    First family would make great neighbours, lovely wife and children but for the head of the house to be the President of the USA, a country, admired and respected by so many in this world …..sorry Democrats….. he is totally out of his depth – his second and (Gracas a Deus) final term in charge has been a disaster

  • Posted by Jim

    I doubt “wishful thinking” explains it. How about “when you lie, lie big.”

  • Posted by Carl Goldberg

    Everyone is talking about “Iran”. But, “Iran” is NOT the name of the country! The official name of that country is “The Islamic Republic of Iran”, and there is a world of difference between “Iran” as a nation state, and “The Islamic Republic of Iran.” That difference is clear from the Preamble of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, one part of which reads a follows:

    “An Ideological Army

    In the formation and equipping of the country’s defense forces, due attention must be paid to faith and ideology as the basic criteria. Accordingly, the army of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are to be organized in conformity with this goal, and they will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world (this is in accordance with the Koranic verse “Prepare against them whatever force you are able to muster, and strings of horses, striking fear into the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them.” [8.60])”

    To ask the Ayatollahs to give up their ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons is asking them to violate their Constitution and their Koran which requires them to acquire “whatever force you are able to muster”, including nuclear weapons, in order to extend Sharia law throughout the world. It won’t happen. Negotiations are worse than fruitless.They permit the ayatollahs to acquire their nuclear weapons.

  • Posted by Jerry Blaz

    It was always my understanding that it was the Ayatollah Khomeini and not Khameni who issued the fatwa. What could be the case is that Khameni endorsed the Khomeini fatwa prohibiting the Islamic State of Iran from making nuclear weapons. It may be the similarity of the two names that created some confusion.

  • Posted by Elihu


    It appears that what Ms. Clinton discussed was ” the repetition by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that they would – that he had issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, against weapons of mass destruction” but- not the substance of the purported Fatwah. The Fatwah itself is remarkably absent.

  • Posted by ah

    Perhaps we would all just prefer if Iran withdrew from the NPT and then “legally” developed nuclear weapons as was the case with Israel. Then fatwa or not, the country is acting in its own interests, just like every other country that has developed a weapon.

  • Posted by Rabbi Philip J Bentley

    I once had Elliot Abrams speak at a NY Federation conference on the arms race. This was in the 1980s. His presentation was outrageously hawkish ending with his assertion “I’d rather be red than dead.” He struck me as a real Doctor Strangelove. He loves the bomb, so long as it is ours. I do not trust his judgment on Iran and this essay strikes me as peculiarly tangential to the diplomatic process.
    In fact Islam forbids attacking noncombatants in time of war. That means that all of these terror attacks are in violation of Islam and it also means that WMDs are categorically forbidden for Muslims. The problem is not Islam. The problem is the regional intentions of Iran. This is one of the problems when there is no wall of separation between religion and state.

  • Posted by sam

    my gratitude to the honorable rabbi bentley. that is exactly ayatolah sistani’s position on the issue. these people at the helm of iranian theocracy have made a grave mistake of mixing the two.

  • Posted by Emile Maria

    Whenever it is expedient, taghiyyah (taqiyeh) will ratify the use of the Bomb. The issue is: Will taghiyyah supersede a Fatwa or not?

  • Posted by ah

    Emile, your insistence that Iran will use taqiyeh is based on what? Your long experience working as a diplomat in Iran? Your PhD in Persian and Islamic history? Or based on some ridiculous talking point you regurgitated from Fox and Friends yesterday? Come on, please use a bit more discernment and critical thinking in your comments.

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