In his annual statement marking the Persian new year, President Obama said he believes that Iran and the U.S. “should be able” to resolve the dispute over the mullahs’ nuclear program “peacefully, with diplomacy.”
With his very next words, Obama said the following: “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, and President Rouhani has said that Iran would never develop a nuclear weapon.”
Of course, the existence of Khamenei’s alleged fatwa is hotly disputed. If the president is so confident it exists, then his administration should be able to produce a copy of the fatwa, revealing when it was written and what it says. The Washington Post’s fact checker went looking for the fatwa in November 2013, as administration officials were citing it at the time, and couldn’t find it.
The Iranians are well aware of the controversy over Khamenei’s supposed declaration. They have countered by pointing to Khamenei’s public statements, in which he has said that Iran considers “the use of such weapons as haram (religiously forbidden).” In 2013, USA Today’s Oren Dorell reported that Iran's press office at the United Nations cited one of Khamenei’s speeches in 2006 as evidence that the fatwa was real. With respect to building nuclear weapons, Khamenei said, "any benefit would not be worth the cost."
The Iranians were, therefore, trying to substitute Khamenei’s public rhetoric for a formal, binding religious edict. (The very nature of such edicts, and whether they are binding or not, is itself in dispute.) Importantly, the Iranians’ argument at the time was an implicit concession that no such edict, or fatwa, actually exists. If it did, then they could easily produce it. They still haven’t.
There is another basic logical problem with the Iranians’ argument. Khamenei says all sorts of things, many of which we know are false – blatantly so. For example, he has repeatedly claimed that the Obama administration supports the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
And Khamenei has clearly lied about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
In February 2012, Khamenei reportedly said the following (emphasis added):
“The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”
No one seriously believes this. The U.S. intelligence community, which erroneously argued in 2007 that Iran had “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003, doesn’t think this is true. Even at that time, the intelligence community noted Iran had been pursuing a bomb. The Iranians couldn’t halt those efforts if they didn’t pursue them in the first place. There are conflicting assessments about how quickly Iran can assemble a bomb, but the intelligence doesn’t support Khamenei’s claim that Iran “has never pursued” such a weapon. The evidence collected by the IAEA also shows the opposite is true.
Amazingly, according to a column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, Obama believed that these same remarks by Khamenei in February 2012 marked “a potential starting point” for serious negotiations. That is, Obama viewed a blatant lie about Iran’s nuclear past as a diplomatic opening.
Khamenei was indeed lying in 2012 when he said Iran had “never pursued…nuclear weapons.” It stands to reason, therefore, that none of his public statements on Iran’s nuclear program can be taken at face value, let alone portrayed as a binding religious ruling.