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A theoglogical view of nuclear weapons

Iran stresses the importance of Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons. Should we take him seriously?

Juan Cole at Informed Comment draws attention to this very interesting story from last week: the Iranian government has gone to some lengths to stress the importance of the fatwa or religious ruling against nuclear weapons made by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

The Iranian spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, told a press conference that “There is nothing higher than the exalted supreme leader’s fatwa to define the framework for our activities in the nuclear field … When the highest jurist and authority in the country’s leadership issues a fatwa, this will be binding for all of us to follow.”

The ayatollah originally issued the ruling in 2005; you can read a version of it at his website, here. But the subject has only grown in importance since then, so some might be reassured to know that Khamenei says “it is not right for a country to use its knowledge to produce such weapons as nuclear bombs which annihilate armed soldiers, innocent civilians, children, babies and oppressed people indiscriminately once they are dropped somewhere.”

I’m no theologian, so I don’t know whether Khamenei’s view represents good Islamic doctrine. It certainly seems reasonable, but it also doesn’t seem very deep: it reads more like a historical and political survey than a rigorous examination of religious principle.

In any case, I think Khamenei probably takes the political side of his duties rather more seriously than the religious side. If he decides it’s in Iran’s interests to develop nuclear weapons, I’m confident that he’d find a way of reconciling that with his religion. That’s the view that Iranian scholar Mehdi Khalaji came to in a 2011 study.

But what really strikes me is the cognitive dissonance involved in simultaneously believing (a) that Khamenei and his colleagues are crafty tyrants who would ignore a religious edict if they felt like it, and (b) that they are crazed religious fanatics, confident of their reward in heaven, who would be willing to use a nuclear weapon even though that would mean certain destruction at the hands of the Israeli or American deterrent.

Yet that strangely contradictory view seems to be prominent among western policymakers.

(Incidentally, for those who are confused about the Benghazi controversy, Cole has an excellent roundup.)

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  • 1
    Chris Williams
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    “I’m no theologian, so I don’t know whether Khamenei’s view represents good Islamic doctrine. It certainly seems reasonable, but it also doesn’t seem very deep: it reads more like a historical and political survey than a rigorous examination of religious principle.” (Charles Richardson).

    One wonders what Charles Richardson really wants or expect from Iran’s religious leadership. Perhaps, instead of declaring nuclear weapons are horrible because they indiscriminately kill the innocent, he would prefer Iran’s religious leaders to emulate the religious leadership of Israel? Perhaps Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s foremost Rabbinic authority, as reported in the Jerusalem Post of 18 October 2010: “Gentiles exist only to serve Jews” is more to Richardson’s liking?

    Or perhaps he would prefer the humanitarian philosophy of leading Chabad Lubovitch’s Rabbi Yitzak Ginsburg: “Gentile souls are of a completely different and inferior order. They are totally evil, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever…[there is] something special about Jewish DNA. If a Jew needs a liver, can you take the liver of an innocent non-Jew passing by to save him? The Torah would probably permit that. Jewish life has an infinite value. There is something infinitely more holy and unique about Jewish life than non-Jewish life.” (Jewish News, 26 April, 1996).

    Or perhaps that of Rabbi Baruch Efrati, a yeshiva head and community rabbi in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, as reported in Ynet.News.com on 11 November 2012: “…there will be no remnants and survivors from the impurity of Christianity, which shed a lot of blood it won’t be able to atone for.”

    Are these statement of religious doctrine by senior Jewish rabbis “deep” enough for Richardson – are they sufficiently “rigorous as religious principle”?

    The point Richardson makes about cognitive dissonance of US policy makers – who on the one hand presume that that Khamenei and his colleagues are both
    (a) crafty tyrants who would ignore a religious edict if they felt like it, and
    (b) that they are crazed religious fanatics, confident of their reward in heaven, who would be willing to use a nuclear weapon no matter what the consequences
    – is well made but his extraordinarily presumptuous preface to this point that “…Khamenei probably takes the political side of his duties rather more seriously than the religious side. If he decides it’s in Iran’s interests to develop nuclear weapons, I’m confident that he’d find a way of reconciling that with his religion” suggests that Richardson has decided that the way out of the cognitive confusion is simply to assume that (a) is the correct answer!

    The effect of this is to say that any move by the Iranian mullahs to protect their country is a hypocritical betrayal of their faith. On the same logic Ayatollah Khomeini was a hypocrite during the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war when he finally agreed to stockpile chemical weapons as a deterrent to the possibility that Saddam might extend his battlefield use of chemical weapons to use against Iranian cities.

    It would seem that the worst thing the Zionist media, and those in Australia who have difficulty thinking outside its oppositional paradigm, would want to concede is that Iran’s Islamic religious leadership may in fact be principled. On this point, Richardson’s reliance on the conclusions, as he sees them, of the 2011 Mehdi Khalaji article in the Journal of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which he links to his report, totally misreads Khalaji’s concerns, which are not that Khameini is duplicitous or insincere in his pronouncements about nuclear weapons but that the current emergency is undermining Iran’s democratic institutions and pushign it more towards a theocratic/military rule.)

    Buried in Khalaji’s footnotes we find the real psychological roots of the Zionist ranting and raving. The reason why it is so important for the Zionists to portray Islam as duplicitous is because duplicity is itself a core category of the orthodox Talmudic religiosity which informs Zionism. Khalaji’s 29th footnote notes that there are six instances where Judaism rejects the understanding of truth telling as a universal moral absolute: (1) to prevent future harm; (2) to right a past wrong done when dealing with a dishonest or deceptive person or government; (3) when the effect of telling the truth will cause unnecessary hurt; (4) to create peace or an otherwise good outcome; (5) because a question invades one’s privacy; and (6) when exaggerating to make a point and the exaggeration is understood. As quoted and paraphrased from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy (New York: Bell Tower, 2006), pp. 423–424. Khalaji might have also added in line with the teaching of the Babylonian Talmud “whenever dealing with a gentile” (e.g See ref in the Jewish Encyclopaedia to “Gentile,” pp.610 and 620, 623).

    Finally, perhaps as Richardson sees Khamenei’s religious leadership as no more than a ruse for secular statecraft perhaps he would like to explain how Iran’s secular leadership could respond with any more restraint than it has than might be expected in response to the murderous self righteous apocalypticism of Israel’s leadership since 1948. A classic example was revealed in April 1971 Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, was asked by the BBC’s Panorama program whether she what she was saying was that “if ever Israel was in danger of being defeated on the battlefield, it would be prepared to take the region and even the whole world down with it?” Meir replied “Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying.” More recently, the 2003 statement of Hebrew University Professor of Military History Martin Van Creveld captures the essence of this fanaticism: “We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force….Our armed forces, however, are not the thirtieth strongest in the world, but rather the second or third. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.”

    Such is the threat facing Iran. In light of it, the religious and secular leadership of Iran shows remarkable restraint.

  • 2
    Charles Richardson
    Posted February 5, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments Chris. We disagree on some things, but perhaps not as much as you assume. No, of course I don’t support any of the racist and bloodthirsty views that you quote (and which are not confined to rabbis – one could find parallels in all the major religions). My point about Khamenei’s statement was just that it doesn’t really fit the model of what we’re used to as theological reasoning, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    “Duplicitous” is your word, not mine. I don’t claim that Khamenei is being insincere (although perhaps he is), only that he has both political and religious duties which could conceivably conflict. If they do, I think he would take his political responsibility more seriously, and I don’t blame him for that in the slightest. You can call it hypocrisy if you like (another word I didn’t use), but that’s how politics is.

    I don’t dispute the right of the Iranian leadership to protect their country. I don’t think they’re doing a terribly good job of it – it seems to me that their inflammatory rhetoric and their suppression of Iran’s democracy movement has made the region a more dangerous place. (I also think Israel’s leadership is doing an exceptionally bad job, but that’s another story.) My main point was that Iran’s opponents in the west seem deeply confused about just what the threat is supposed to be.

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