Iran's nuclear program: 4 things you probably didn't know

Do the US and Israel believe that Iran has a nuclear weapons program?  Did President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really promise to "wipe Israel off the map"?  The answers may surprise you.

2. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons.

Mohammad Hassanzadeh/Fars News Agency/AP
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Whatever words Ahmadinejad used to describe his attitude towards Israel, it is undeniable that he is not the true leader of Iran.  That role is filled by the country's supreme leader and foremost religious figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Mr. Khamenei's words are highly influential among religious Shiites –thus making his 2005 fatwa against nuclear weapons a significant factor in discussing Iran's nuclear program.

A fatwa is a ruling on Islamic law issued by a recognized religious figure.  While generally nonbinding, fatwas have influence among the faithful, and fatwas issued by Iran's supreme leader have more influence than most in Iran, both politically and religiously.  So when on Aug. 9, 2005, Khamenei issued a fatwa against the production and use of nuclear weapons, it was not simply a sermon – it carried political weight.  As Jamil Maidan Flores wrote in a commentary last week for the Jakarta Globe, "Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa on nuclear weapons does count for something. He issued it as the supreme spiritual and temporal leader of Iran, and as a marja, a holy man. The fatwa should be binding to all Iranian Shiites, and most binding of all to he himself who issued it."  Khamenei has repeated his commitment to the fatwa many times since. Most recently, in February he called having nuclear weapons a "sin."

But there is another Shiite religious concept, that of taghiyeh, which "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" author Hooman Majd translates as "dissimulation." A byproduct of the early years of Shia's split from the Sunni mainstream, taghiyeh allows Shiites to lie in order to avoid death.  Mr. Flores notes that taghiyeh could be a factor in Khamenei's fatwa on nuclear weapons, if somehow lying about development of such weapons would protect Shiites.  But Mr. Majd notes that taghiyeh is meant only for the purpose of lying about one's religion to avoid death – which is not the case here – and adds that neither Khamenei nor the former supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, ever to anyone's knowledge made use of taghiyeh.

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