US Catholic Bishops: Consider Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Fatwa

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

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. I’m all for painting Iran into a corner of committing to a no-nukes pledge. I’m all for doing the same to all countries. The trouble I’m having is having to deal with the hypocrisy of the “5+1” nations being on the side that’s yelling for this, and yet out of the “5+1″ 5 are already armed to the teeth with not only nukes, but with all sorts of weapons of mass destruction. Over the years, I have had more respect for the Catholic church than any other major religion in their outspoken promotion of peace and opposition to the death penalty. I’d like them to take one more step and that has to do with this:

    “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.”

    I’d like the Catholic church to take a stronger stand on that by making it a religious decree of no nukes in addition to the work they are already doing to rid the word of nukes. If the mullahs of Iran who are definitely not as enlightened as the Catholic church can make a religious decree, we should be able to do better than that. I, too, want a world free of the vilest acts and deeds, and to me that includes war, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, as well as state sponsored terrorism in the form of the death penalty, drone attacks, assassinations, ethnic cleansing, and backing dictatorial regimes.

  2. I believe the Pope is all for no WMD’s too. That said, seems the drive to get the U.S. population ready for a deal is in the works, whether or not some don’t like it. Time to stop this “KABUKI” and get the deal done. Considering all the destruction-failures-that the M.E. has experienced since the 90’s, at the hands of the U.S. I might add, what has been accomplished? Scare tactics haven’t produced peace, but instead has been a cover for one side to steal from the other. The strong victimizing the weak, when some think they can call the shots regardless. Either eliminate WMD’s for all, or give them to everyone, then if the end of the world comes because of it, then everyone will be blamed.

  3. While endorsing both Norman and Ronhawkster I would like to say that fatwa in shia can be issued by any grand Ayattolah and it is binding only on his followers,
    The americans are not really trying to convince the American public. Ordinary and avrage americans are honost and the most gullible people in the world who are conditioned to believe whatever their mass media and politicians tell them. It is a known fact that the mass media in the US and the west as a whole is dominated and controlled by pro-Israeli Jewish corporations and individuals , in addition most politicians, even elected members of National Assemblies, are heavily influenced by variose Jewish and Iraeli “lobbies “.
    It is really israel that not only wants Iran weak and isolated but also would very much like to see the Middle East in turmoil , internal and external skirmishes and wars and broken down to small weak kingdoms , Shiekhdoms , and republics. Such a condition is favored by Israel to ensure “security” for a purely jewish state. In pursuit of such policy and condition undoubtedly Israeli “interest ” over rules “AMERICAN INTEREST” and the American politicians let themselves be instruments of achieving such goals , even at the price of sacrificing “American interest” and creating hard feelings among nearly 1.4 billion mostly practicing Muslims, including a considerable number of Muslims living in Europe and the US. We should not forget the incident of attack on the US scientific research ship, liberty, in the Mediterranean sea in june 1967, killing 34 and injuring 171 innocent unarmed American Navy personnel, deliberately and after identification beyond any doubt. President Johnson covered up the whole incident in favor of financial and political support of Jewish corporations and political lobbies for his re-election.
    American interest in the Middle East for very obviose reasons, is in good relation with Middle Eastern people, not only some corrupt leaders. This is so obvious that it does not need any elaborations. Of the ME countries, Iran is an important independent country which can be a very reliable friend and economic partner of the West and the US. Sacrificing the friendly sympathy of ME poeple and Iran for personal political gains of American politicians can, undoutedly, NOT be called caring for “AMERICAN INTEREST” .
    The Israelis ,and consequently its Jewish lobby in the US, will not be happy with anything less than disarming Iran from any heavy weapons and breaking the country down to small weak republics.
    This will never happen no matter what Israel and its suppoters would want and do.
    The west and the US now have reasonable evidence and assurances, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Iran is not after production of A-bombs .What other assurance is demanded ? Convince us that you are not going to produce atomic bombs ? Is that reasonable ?
    What more is demanded ? An assurance matching that demanded by Shylock in”The Merchant of Venice” ?!!

  4. Talk and then talk more until an agreement is crafted, stopping it will bring dialogue through other means mainly violence and war. Everyone will win so long as people talk to one another, the Catholics have taken the lead, that is great, where are the other denominations? Many hope to see them take the same bridge building steps as well. Given that the politicians need the support of their constituents and religious leaders can and must preach the word of peace then it could be surmised that it will be not unreasonable to expect these good people to request from their representatives to craft peace and stop the machineries of war into action. Perhaps there can be a spiritual ground swell that could show the road map that can circumvent the misinformation that the masses in US are subjected to and bring about a sensible peace between the two nations. Hope is eternal.

  5. This is the kind of collaborative meeting that I like hearing about and think should happen an whole lot more. The USCCB in dialogue with Shia Scholars and Ayatollahs. I would dearly like to suggest to them that they find a way to look together into the Atomic World, or into our understanding of the particle world. Because there is all kinds of evidence, that I think these religious men would easily recognise, of the particle world being more social, more sentient, than the scientific method is able to see on its own.
    In other words, we need an inquiry about the spiritual nature of the energy that is within the atom. And the spiritual and social nature of the nuclear processes. This, in my view, is the Church’s territory. And I assume it is a subject of equal interest for the Ayatollahs and the observant mystical tradition of Islam.
    I’ve a web site that explores the metaphysics of nuclear power, and the holographic nature of the Atomic World. It’s a subject simply crying out for our attention. It does mean we have to re-instate our spiritual and universal insights to sit equally alongside the scientific discipline and principles.
    Thanks for the space to post this comment. Ian Turnbull. Findhorn. Scotland.

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