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Reading IAEA in Tehran

The Iranian regime is proud of its nuclear ­program.

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Periodically, when the temperature rises in the West about Iran’s nuclear program, some scholars and commentators focus on the supreme leader’s supposed fatwa against nuclear weapons (it’s bad for anyone to have them, especially bad for Muslims, absolutely haram to use one). Although Islamic scholars in Iran have debated the propriety of nukes, among political clerics the question was settled in the early 1990s after a vigorous debate about whether Iran should proceed with a nuclear-weapons program. Led by Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani​—​then the major-domo of the mullah establishment and the man who in 1989 arranged Khamenei’s succession as supreme leader​—​the ruling clergy decided to back the clandestine program. All of the revelations in the new IAEA report about nuclear triggers and warhead designs​—​rather strong proof that Khamenei hasn’t had a religious problem with at least building and possessing a nuclear bomb​—​ought to tell Western observers that Khamenei’s august political-religious office doesn’t denote the veracity one might expect from saintly pope or worldly rabbi. 

Reflexively, Westerners assume a certain probity in men of the cloth (despite a superabundance of evidence that churchmen too are sinners). For Iranian mullahs the assumption is woefully misplaced, at least when it comes to honesty (and sex). Iranians have never regarded clerics​—​except perhaps the most accomplished scholars​—​as ever being above sin. They are lawyers who, as the great poet Hafez famously remarked, “don’t practice in private what they preach in public.” Even so, public esteem for the clergy has probably fallen in 30 years of theocracy. It’s a good guess that the assessment of the Emperor Charles V’s ambassador to London of English sentiment towards their clergy is close to the truth in Iran: “Nearly all the people hate the priests.” 

The enormous disconnect between public attitudes and official rhetoric has introduced a pervasive surreality into the world of Iran’s political clerics, who rule but no longer reign. To say that the Iranian governing elite are mendacious just doesn’t capture the distance between words and deeds. 

Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa was not to be taken seriously. It was meant partly for Western consumption. More important, it reflected the surreal Islam-vs.-the-West theater that is a never-ending spectacle in the Islamic Republic. America unleashed the atom bomb in war; the Islamic Republic wouldn’t do such a thing. The West is overflowing with homosexuals; in Iran, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad informed the students of Columbia University in 2007, “We don’t have that.” Ahmadinejad, a man of considerable earthy Persian wit, probably has told innumerable homosexual jokes about the towns of Qazvin and Shiraz​—​a mainstay of Persian working-class humor. But at Columbia, at that moment, homosexuality in his homeland didn’t exist. Ahmadinejad probably could have passed a polygraph test on the question. 

The same for Khamenei on the nuclear issue. Khamenei lives in two worlds: In one, his minions work arduously to build nuclear weapons; in the other they do research on medical isotopes. In one, he sends his minions abroad to slaughter Jews in Argentina, blow up Americans at Khobar Towers, liaise with al Qaeda, and in all probability assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.; in the other, he’s defending the Palestinian people and all Muslims against aggressive Zionists, peacefully deploring the presence of American troops in Arabia, condemning the bigotry of Sunni extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and revealing to all the long track record of American terrorism inside Iran. Khamenei moves between these two worlds effortlessly, without friction, without awareness that he’s crossed the border between fiction and fact. 

The Iranian media’s coverage of the IAEA report reflects Khamenei’s most cherished conception of himself and his country. That conception is dangerous because it is insular, disconnected from and at odds with reality as understood in the West. When the supreme leader gets his hands on a nuclear weapon, this self-centeredness may get much worse. If the United States and the Islamic Republic ever go to war, this will surely be why.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).

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