Iran Nuclear Talks: Can Islam Guide the Way to Peace?

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Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images

Iranians walk on a street across from a building with murals of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and an unfinished picture of the late founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at Enghelab (Revolution) square in Tehran on February 28, 2012.

There’s all sorts of ways the nuclear talks with Iran might end badly.  But it’s also pretty clear, even before diplomats gather in Istanbul on Friday, how the talks would manage to end happily: On the foundation of Iran’s repeated insistence that atomic weapons are prohibited by Islam.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields nearly absolute power in Iran, has been saying for years that nuclear arms are “sinful” and thus off-limits for the Islamic Republic.  He said it again as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to call on President Obama in Washington last month: “There is no doubt the decision-makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous,” the Supreme Leader declared, according to state media.

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The mullah was right on one point: At least one decision-maker in a country opposing them – President Obama — knows very well that Iran publicly opposes nukes on religious grounds, and sees in that stance an elegant way out of a crisis increasingly defined in military terms. Obama brought the point up himself to the Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg during their lengthy interview on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit, an expansive discussion that made news for its tough talk – “I don’t bluff” – but also laid out the President’s strategy for a negotiating a peaceful endgame. The pivot point, he said, would be the Iranians’ descriptions of nuclear weapons as “un-Islamic” and “sinful.”

“The point is that for them to prove to the international community that their intentions are peaceful and that they are, in fact, not pursuing weapons is not inconsistent with what they’ve said,” Obama explained. “So it doesn’t require them to knuckle under to us. What it does require is for them to actually show to the world that there is consistency between their actions and their statements. And that’s something they should be able to do without losing face.”

Face matters in any negotiation, but especially one with Iran, which sees itself not only as the vanguard of the Muslim world, but also of what used to be called the non-aligned nations, scrappy underdogs that chafe at a world order top-heavy with northern, Christian states – basically, the ones who took charge after World War II and held on. Add to that the longstanding national pride in Iran’s own lustrous history of innovation and high culture (much of it assembled under the rubric of “Persia,” its other name) and you begin to see the importance of Tehran’s walking away from the table with its head held high.

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But a cleric also wants to look consistent, especially on matters ecclesiastical. Khamenei may not qualify as a full-on, old school ayatollah; he was awarded the title as a battlefield promotion by fellow clerics as they settled on him to succeed Ruhollah Khomeini, who fully earned his own title of Grand Ayatollah following years of Islamic jurisprudence. The head of state has final word on all matters: Khamenei is the velayat-e faqih, or guardian of the jurists, ruling in the place of the missing twelfth imam of Twelver Shi’ism. On his website, Khamenei goes about not only affairs of state but also the main business of an ayatollah — helping believers navigate the dilemmas posed by the modern world. He recently ruled, for instance, that it’s permissible to visit websites that compensate people who visit them, so long as doing so “does not amount to propagating corruption, spreading lies, showing wrong subjects or involvement in haram [forbidden] practices.” He also says that if you’ve got to shave your beard, it’s okay to have a barber do it.

Gary G. Sick, who followed Iran at the National Security Council before moving to Columbia University, puts considerable credence in the Khamenei’s words. “Regardless of his qualifications, he has that job and he takes it seriously,” Sick tells TIME.  “People may not follow him as their personal ayatollah, but when he makes a statement that has to do with security and the state there is nobody that can contradict him.”

Nor can he airily contradict himself, even though his fellow mullahs took the trouble to assemble a mechanism to allow him to. Consider the wonderfully named Expediency Council, designed to manage the tension inherent between a worldly parliament and the council of clerics who serve as a kind of religious supreme court. The same spirit of pragmatism allows the Leader all sorts of freedom.  “Ayatollah Khomeini introduced a new reading according to which, for an Islamic state the first priority is to conserve and sustain itself,” says Mehrdad Mirdamadi, an Iranian-born analyst now working at Radio Free Europe. “To do so it can even suspend the shari’a law. This later became known as the expedience of the system principle, based on which the Expediency Council was formed.”

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This means Iran could justify pursuing even “sinful” nuclear weapons if doing so was reckoned necessary to survival of the state — something Sick says the mullahs felt was indeed in question during the 1980s, when they secretly revived the Shah’s nuclear program and explored weaponization. (That narrative is the subject of a coming post). Publicly, however, the fatwa against nukes remained operative, and with it the opportunity for concerned foreign powers to engage the issue.

“I’m glad the US government has finally realized that that gives them a basis for starting negotiations,” says Sick. “We say, ‘Okay, we take you at your word, you don’t want to make nuclear weapons, and we want to have assurances that you’re not. So we’ve got something to talk about here.’”

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