An ex-CIA spy explains Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons

Iran’s leaders say nuclear weapons are forbidden by Islamic law. What I’ve seen suggests otherwise.

Muslims use the word haram to describe any act forbidden under the rules of Islam. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, recently declared that Iran could not possibly be working on a nuclear bomb because doing so would be haram.

“We have often said that our religious tenets and beliefs consider these kinds of weapons of mass destruction to be symbols of genocide and are, therefore, forbidden,” he asserted in February. “This is why we ... do not seek them.”

At a time when President Obama and Western allies are confronting Iran over its suspected nuclear program, some in the West took solace in the supreme leader’s assurance. Such solace is foolhardy.

First, Mr. Khamenei does not hold a sufficient position to declare any act as haram. Only a mujtahid, an Islamic scholar, has such authority.

However, when Khamenei was appointed as supreme leader in 1989, he was not considered qualified to be a mujtahid, let alone an ayatollah. He attained the title of ayatollah virtually overnight amid a highly disputed succession process.

Second, Khamenei ignores the fact that, in the mid-1980s, Mohsen Rezaei, then chief commander of the Revolutionary Guards, got Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s permission to develop nuclear bombs. As a CIA agent in the Revolutionary Guards then, I learned of this nascent effort and reported it to my handlers. The Iranians approached several sources, including Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. His account of Iran’s bid to buy atomic bombs from Pakistan was reported very recently.

Say one thing, do another

That Khamenei has chosen to conceal Iran’s nuclear program shouldn’t be surprising. He also claims that the Iranian government doesn’t condone torture, that the recent Iranian election was just and proof that his nation is a real democracy, and that Iran is not involved in terrorism.

Islamic teaching considers the spilling of blood during the Islamic month of Muharram to be haram. Yet that didn’t stop the regime’s troops from slaughtering unarmed protesters last year on Ashura, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest days.

Khamenei considers the Koran to be the ultimate source of guidance. One Koranic tenet is that you should deceive your enemies until you are strong enough to destroy them. Khamenei is employing this when he makes his declarations to the West.

Within Iran, radical Islamists have grown in power since Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989. Even Khomeini – an extremist by any reasonable definition – saw them as too fanatic and tried to keep them in check.

These radicals belong to a secret society called the Hojjatieh. It’s essentially a cult devoted to the reappearance of the 12th imam, Mahdi, and Islam’s conquest of the world. To achieve that end, the radicals believe they must foment chaos, famine, and lawlessness, that they must destroy Israel, and that world order must come to an abrupt halt.

Long ago, my best friend and commander in the Revolutionary Guards reminded me of a hadith, a saying from the prophet Muhammad, about Imam Mahdi: “During the last times, my people will be afflicted with terrible and unprecedented calamities and misfortunes from their rulers, so much so that this vast earth will appear small to them. Persecution and injustice will engulf the earth. The believers will find no shelter to seek refuge from these tortures and injustices. At such a time, Allah will raise from my progeny a man who will establish peace and justice on this earth in the same way as it had been filled with injustice and distress.”

The Hojjatieh see any movement toward peace and democracy as delaying Mahdi’s reappearance.

Although he strenuously denies it, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi reportedly sits at the top of this secret society. He is an influential member of the Assembly of Experts (the body that chooses the supreme leader), an adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the founder of the Haghani School that teaches the most radical Shiite beliefs.

The teachers and students of this school run some of the most important political and security institutions in the Iranian government, including the Ministry of Intelligence, which is involved in organizing death squads against the opposition and coordinating terrorist activities against the West.

Ayatollah Janati, the powerful chairman of the Guardian Council, is also associated with the school. Yazdi, Janati, and Mojtaba Khamenei (Ayatollah Khamenei’s son) were central to President Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection last June and the suppression of the opposition, and they are directing the supreme leader regarding the nuclear program.

A wake-up call for the West

It is difficult for the West to understand this ideology. We find it astounding that Iranian leaders seem to be instigating an international confrontation. But we can’t afford the luxury of confusion.

We can’t allow Khamenei’s statements to deceive us. Whether it is haram or not, Iran is almost certainly developing nuclear weapons, and an Islamic Republic of Iran with atomic bombs would strongly destabilize the world.

The choices are clear: We can either rise up to our principles and defend the aspirations of the Iranian people for a free and democratic government, or we can continue with our vacillation and indecision, allowing Iran to become a nuclear-armed state.

Instead of counting on watered-down United Nations sanctions, the West should cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran, close down all airspace and seaports going to or from Iran, sanction all companies doing business with Iran, and cut off its gasoline supply. We should then demand an immediate halt to all Iranian nuclear and missile delivery activities and the right to peaceful demonstration and freedom of speech for all Iranians. And if that fails, a military action should be in the cards.

Reza Kahlili is a pseudonym for an ex-CIA spy who requires anonymity for safety reasons. “A Time to Betray,” his book about his double life as a CIA agent in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, will be published by Simon & Schuster on April 6.

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