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Opinion

The real reason Iran can't be trusted

As they confront Iran's nuclear aims, negotiators must mind the Shiite doctrine of deceit called 'taqiyya.'

By Mamoun Fandy / November 20, 2009



London

In the run-up to talks with Iran last month, many in Europe and the United States asked whether Iran would, or even could, come clean on its nuclear activities.

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Should the West trust Iranian promises? The short answer is "no." But the underlying question is "Why not?"

The answer lies in Iranian belief systems – notably the doctrine of taqiyya, a difficult concept for many non-Muslims to grasp. Taqiyya is the Shiite religious rationale for concealment or dissimulation in political or worldly affairs. At one level it means that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his regime can tell themselves that they are obliged by their faith not to tell the truth.

This doctrine has not been discussed much in the West, but it should be. How should the world deal with taqiyya in Shiite Islam in the context of Iran's nuclear file?

Can Iran be trusted?

In Iran, the teachings of Shiite Islam govern all aspects of society. And taqiyya – dissimulation and concealment – is one of the key elements of the Shiite faith. While many outsiders are surprised by Iran's concealment of its nuclear installations, those who study the Shiite faith and recognize the signs of taqiyya are not.

Many governments lie about strategic secrets, especially secrets about nuclear weapons. Witness Israel's concealment of its nuclear capabilities. And former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping counseled his country to "hide its brightness" – for strategic reasons.

Iran's approach to its nuclear ambitions, however, is a different form of deception and denial. Certainly states do not need a religious edict to lie or obfuscate. But it helps if a state has one already in place.

What can the West do?

Western negotiators must be mindful, not only of the technical side of Iran's nuclear program, but the historical evolution of taqiyya. Such context sheds critical light on the insecurities of the Iranian regime and that of the Shiite community at large.

Taqiyya doesn't mean the West should give up all negotiations with Iran, or that Iran can never be trusted. Tehran's concealment is a means to an end: It wants nuclear weapons to provide security for the clerical regime and the Shiite community. So long as Iran feels threatened, it will deceive. But if the West can ease Tehran's anxiety with strong assurances, then negotiations will be more truthful.

How a doctrine of deceit developed

Taqiyya requires the faithful to be deceitful at times of weakness. The history of Shiites in their conflict with Sunnis is a history of the downtrodden. They have been the underdogs in Islamic history, and have had to protect both their communities and their faith from being overrun by the more numerous Sunnis. Taqiyya emerged as a response.

Taqiyya offers a license to violate the strict rules of the faith in cases of extreme pressure or threat of extinction – something not unusual in Sunni-Shiite history. The doctrine allows dissimulation in the service of self-preservation, practiced by the faithful.

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