Ad by The Cutting Edge News

The Cutting Edge

Wednesday June 20 2018 reaching 1.4 million monthly
Ad by The Cutting Edge News

Iran’s Nukes

Back to Page One

Religious Ideologies, Political Doctrines, and Iran’s Nuclear Decisionmaking, Part 1

September 19th 2011

Iran - Khameni and Khomeini

Because the Islamic Republic of 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,” 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 considerations.

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). 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. The implication is that because the Islamic Republic is a theocracy, its formal religious claims should be taken seriously.

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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.” 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 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.

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. 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 Shi’a 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.

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 routinely invoked to justify decisions at the highest level of the government, as well as the actions of the regime’s foot soldiers.

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 analysis will discuss 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.

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 Ba’ath 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 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. 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 avenge the first one, while preventing a third strike against us.

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. 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 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.

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. 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.

Michael Eisenstadt is director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute, from where this article, part 1 of Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji’s “Nuclear Fatwa” is adapted.

Back to Page One
Copyright © 2007-2018The Cutting Edge News About Us