Monday, March 12, 2012

Fatwa and the Bomb

The conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, also known as the Jewish lobby, held last week in the United States, was a carnival of war mongering.

Addressing the conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to rain fire and brimstone upon Iran. But the following day, he sheathed the saber he had been rattling since November after meeting at the White House with the ally who dislikes him, US President Barack Obama, who told him to hold his horses and let sanctions and diplomacy work before dropping bunker busters on Iran.

However, if it turns out Iran has in fact produced a nuclear weapon, Obama made it clear, the US itself would take military action. Hours later, right on cue, the US Air Force claimed it had a new 13,600-kilogram bunker-buster bomb that could blast through 65 meters of concrete. The question is whether it can smash through the smart, tough concrete that armors Iran’s underground nuclear facilities. But you won’t get the answer until the US finds out Iran has made a nuclear weapon.

Much of the saber rattling today is emanating from the Republican presidential primary in the United States. Addressing the Jewish lobby, Mitt Romney, the leading contender, talked of sending carriers and warships to Iran’s door. Newt Gingrich said the red line — the time to bomb Iran — is now. Rick Santorum would issue an ultimatum before tearing Iran apart. All of it is demagogic bluster meant to look tough and depict Obama as a sissy.

Meanwhile, in a rare display of prudence, Iran expressed willingness to talk with the West about its nuclear program. It would even let inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency take a good look at its nuclear facilities in a military base — undoubtedly after clearing it of evidence of military nuclear activity, skeptics say.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised Obama for scolding the “drumbeaters of war” although he also chided the latter for talking about military action at all.

All good signs. They mean, first of all, that sanctions are working. And that Iranians don’t relish the prospect of a rain of bunker busters. And that it’s just possible Iran does not really intend to make a nuclear bomb.

In a Friday prayer khotba , or sermon, sometime in mid-2005, Khamenei delivered a fatwa forbidding the manufacture, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons, saying Iran would never acquire such weapons which are haram — banned — in Islam. The fatwa was put in writing and repeated many times by Khamenei and the official spokesmen of Iran — most emphatically in April 2006 before the board of governors of the IAEA.

Most fatwas are not binding, of course. Hence, Western countries have given no weight to the Khamenei fatwa on nuclear weapons. Moreover, there is the doctrine of taqiyya, or religious dissimulation or concealment, which was historically developed as a defensive tactic against the persecutors of Shia minority populations. Today it is still emphasized in Shia Islam, and it refers to using words or actions to mislead your opponents. Or lying to save your skin.

All these things considered, 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.

It would be a terrible mistake for the international community to dismiss that fatwa lightly. The wise thing for all nations that profess a commitment to disarmament to do would be to hold Iran to that fatwa in the same way that Indonesia is now holding Myanmar to its own promise of democratic reform. To keep reminding Iranian leaders of the moral force of that fatwa. And to impress upon them that Iran, the heir to a great civilization and no minnow in the Middle East pond, should be too honor-bound to resort to taqiyya. And, finally, that compliance with the fatwa means full cooperation with the IAEA.

It would greatly help if Western countries recognized Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear power — a right that the last Bush administration seemed to deny Iran.

If Iran does finally cooperate fully with the IAEA, it won’t look as if it was brought to its knees by sanctions or the rattle of sabers. Iran will do so in pursuit of its own values and in compliance with the fatwa of its supreme leader.

To keep peace with Iran, that fatwa is key.

By Jamil Maidan Flores poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has worked as a speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992. Jakarta Globe

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