by Derek Davison
In March of this year, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent a delegation of religious and academic figures to the Iranian religious city of Qom to begin a dialogue with Shia scholars and ayatollahs. According to Bishop Richard Pates, chair of the USCCB’s Committee on International Peace and Justice, the discussion in Qom focused heavily on the morality of weapons of mass destruction. It also revealed that the Catholic Church and the Iranian Shia establishment share similar official views on the subject.
Pates said there was “no discussion” during the trip about capital punishment, a topic upon which there would be clear divergence between the Catholic Church, which opposes the practice, and the Iranian judiciary, which has been executing prisoners at a remarkable rate. But the Iranians were completely open to discussing their nuclear program, which has become an international issue.
“We were told in the clearest terms that Shia Islam opposes and forbids the production, stockpiling, use, and threat to use [weapons] of mass destruction,” said Pates at an event in Washington Wednesday hosted by the Arms Control Association.
“We noted that the Catholic Church is also working for a world without weapons of mass destruction, and has called on all nations to rid themselves of these indiscriminate weapons,” he added.
At several points during the negotiations between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program—the talks are now in their final month before the Nov. 24 deadline—top US officials have called upon the Iranian government to prove to the world that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
In a Sept. 27 speech, White House Coordinator for the Middle East Phil Gordon echoed President Obama’s position on the issue by saying that the negotiations “can actually be boiled down to a very simple question: Is Iran prepared to demonstrate to the world that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful?”
More recently, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Oct. 23 in a widely cited speech that “we hope the leaders in Tehran will agree to the steps necessary to assure the world that this program will be exclusively peaceful and thereby end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation and improve further the lives of their people.”
These messages, while undoubtedly intended as much for a skeptical American audience as they are for Iran’s negotiating team, omit the fact that to date, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Iran’s nuclear program, has produced no evidence of a current Iranian nuclear weapons program. The US intelligence committee (IC) also reports that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, even if the IC assesses that it does not know if Iran will decide to take this path in the future.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also issued a fatwa several years ago to the effect that the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons contradicts the teachings of Islam and is therefore prohibited. American policymakers and journalists frequently cite this edict, but won’t acknowledge it as a binding element of Iranian policy.
Yet there is evidence that the fatwa worked in the past. In a recent interview, the former Iranian minister of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Mohsen Rafighdoost, described to Gareth Porter how Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, prohibited the manufacture of chemical and biological weapons at the height of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, even after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against Iranian troops. To date, there has been no reliable evidence that Iran used any weapons of mass destruction in that war. Khomeini’s refusal to produce or use WMDs (even in such trying circumstances) formed the basis for Khamenei’s more recent fatwa against nuclear weapons.
“It might be taken into consideration that even though Iraq used chemical weapons in the [Iran-Iraq] War, Iran did not respond with the use of similar weapons,” said Pates in reference to the negotiations.
Pates also noted that his hosts not only “affirmed” the existence of a fatwa against nuclear weapons but also “confirmed that it is a matter of public record and is highly respected among Shia scholars and Iranians in general.” Ebrahim Mohseni of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland agreed with Pates on that last point.
Mohseni, who was part of the delegation and whose recent polling has helped illuminate how the Iranian public views the nuclear issue, said that a majority of Iranians (65%) share the religious view that the production and use of nuclear weapons is contrary to Islamic principles, and an even larger majority (78%) agree with the sentiment that Iran was right not to respond in kind to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the 1980s.
As to whether Khamenei’s fatwa could be reversed, Pates said that the Qom scholars “argued that the fatwa could not be reversed or made to contradict itself, even if Iran’s strategic calculations changed.”
“This would undermine the authority of the supreme leader, which guides, in a general way, Iran’s political class,” he said.
This point was echoed by USCCB Director, Stephen Colecchi, another member of the Qom delegation who pointed out that the fatwa “is clearly pervasively taught and defended within Iran,” and that for Khamenei to contradict his earlier edict “would undermine the whole teaching authority of [Iran’s] system.”
The “bottom line” coming out of the Qom dialogue, according to Colecchi, is that “we’re asking our people, our government, and others…at least take [the fatwa] into account.”
“It is a factor, and it might make the negotiations easier to really understand the nature of Iran,” he said.
Photo: (From left) Seyyed Mahmoud, US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Bishop Richard Pates, Bishop Denis Madden, and Stephen Colecchi meet in March at the Ayatollah Marashi Najafi Library in Qom, Iran. Credit: CNS/Courtesy Stephen M. Colecchi