Don’t Believe What Obama Says Iran Says

A phantom fatwa against nuclear weapons and an agreement the Supreme Leader says is not agreed on are slender threads on which to hang an “historic understanding.”

04.10.15 9:40 AM ET

No one thought it was going to be easy but this is getting baffling. The Iran talks are making the nuclear negotiations of the Cold War era appear, by comparison, almost a walk in the park.

For the past week President Barack Obama has been busy talking up an “historic understanding” with Iran. Since April 2, when negotiators ended marathon talks and an overnight session in Lausanne with the announcement of a framework agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program, the administration has been in overdrive trying to sell the arrangement to Congress (and wary Gulf countries) as a “good deal.”

But what is the administration selling? What is the deal?

On Thursday, in his first public remarks since the Lausanne negotiators slapped each other on their backs, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei poured scorn on the idea that anything approaching a real understanding has been reached. He couldn’t endorse or reject anything that came out of Lausanne because, he said, “Nothing has happened yet.”

And if anyone missed the point, he belabored it to a gathering in Tehran. “What has happened so far does not guarantee either the principle of an agreement, or the negotiations that lead to an agreement or even the content of an agreement, and it does not even guarantee that these talks would result in a deal, so congratulation has no meaning,” he announced.

So much for “historic understanding.” Was Lausanne, in fact, an “historic misunderstanding”?

U.S. officials say Khamenei’s unceremonious intervention is just a ploy to get Washington to agree that economic sanctions on Iran should be lifted the moment a final deal is signed. as opposed to being lifted gradually as different aspects of any final nuclear agreement are implemented by Iran over time.

And certainly Iran’s spiritual leader emphasized in his remarks Thursday that “sanctions should be lifted completely on the very day of the deal.”

This is no small issue. Since the “framework” was announced Tehran and Washington have been at odds over the timing of the withdrawal of sanctions. And on Thursday State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke reiterated the U.S. position, arguing, “The process of sanctions suspension or relief will only begin after Iran has completed its major nuclear steps…That’s consistent with what we said over the last week or so, and that was agreed upon by all the parties,” he said.

There is that word “agreed” again. A post-Lausanne negotiating ploy or not, Khamenei’s intervention is an example of the slipperiness of Tehran when it comes to negotiations. Back in 1979, U.S. diplomat Bruce Laingen, an old Iran hand and the most senior American official held captive during the Iran hostage crisis, warned in a cable to take nothing at face value when it comes to talks with Tehran as “statements of intention count for almost nothing.”

Statements of intentions aren’t the only thing that should provoke wariness. So should fatwas, or religious rulings. In trying to sell the idea that Iran is serious about a nuclear deal both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have cited a fatwa that Khamenei supposedly issued judging that nuclear weapons are haram, or forbidden.

Obama mentioned it in his April 2 statement after negotiators said they had agreed on a framework, saying, “Since Iran’s Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons, this framework gives Iran the opportunity to verify that its program is, in fact, peaceful.” But the fatwa appears to be as elusive as…well, the Lausanne agreement. No one has so far seen it.

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Several different dates have been given by Iranian officials for the fatwa banning nuclear weapons—Hassan Rouhani claimed in May 2012 before becoming Iran’s president that it was issued in 2004. A sermon delivered by Iran’s Supreme Leader at Tehran University in November 2004 is cited. But in that sermon Khamenei actually didn’t say possessing or using nuclear weapons was “prohibited,” only “problematic.”

Khamenei did issue a letter to a 2010 international nuclear disarmament conference saying nuclear weapons are haram and later that was referenced as a “new fatwa” on his official website. He even tweeted it. But Iranian legal scholars say this is problematic as it breaks convention on the formatting and content requirements for a fatwa under Islamic jurisprudence, which involves a question being asked of a religious authority and the answer being provided citing Islamic religious sources.

Writing on the BBC Persian website last year, Iranian law expert Bahman Aghai Diba argued: “The fatwa banning nuclear weapons by Iran’s Supreme Leader remains shrouded in a fog.” And he notes that unlike any other Khamenei fatwa the text of this highly important (claimed) one is not actually provided on any official website “nor in any of the numerous collections of the Supreme Leader’s publications.” With its provenance and authenticity in doubt it remains non-binding.

“Such a fatwa has never been issued, and to this day no one has been able to show it,” says Yigal Carmon, a one-time counter-terrorism adviser to Israeli prime ministers and now the head of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

So a dubious fatwa that doesn’t accord with the tradition and accepted practice of Islamic edicts and a nuclear agreement that doesn’t bear any similarity to a dictionary definition of “agreement”: It makes negotiating with the Soviets look easy.