An old religious fatwa by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has initiated debate in recent weeks. It all started when the interpretation of Khamenei’s 2003 fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons was stretched by Iran’s maverick Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi to imply that Tehran could seek nuclear weapons when under pressure.
This debate raises speculation about the direction of Iran’s nuclear program. While Rouhani’s government is scrambling to save the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s hardliners want the United States to lift sanctions before Tehran re-commits to the deal. When the United States pulled out of the JCPOA in 2018 and imposed a harsh regime of sanctions on Iran, Tehran responded by ratcheting up its nuclear activities, particular its enrichment of uranium surpassing permissible levels. Iran recently announced in accordance with its nuclear bill to raise enrichment levels to 20 percent.
To add further fuel to the fire, Iran has promised to scale back its compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and its Parliament on February 23, issued a bill to end the implementation of the Additional Protocol, which allows for snap inspections of its nuclear sites. However, to diffuse escalating tensions, the IAEA’s exertions resulted in Iran agreeing last week to a three-month extension to permit its nuclear facilities to be monitored.
Iran’s hardline Parliament is now trying to thwart Rouhani’s efforts to renegotiate with the United States. On the other hand, in a move that supports Rouhani’s efforts, the new US administration has reversed Trump’s determination that all UN sanctions against Iran had been restored, but it has not responded to Iran’s request to lift sanctions.
From the looks of it, Khamenei is trying to play a balancing game by remaining silent amid the fatwa controversy. If Rouhani can persuade the United States to lift the sanctions, Iran’s leader will be pleased. He has even signaled his support, given that Iran vowed to immediately return to its obligations under the JCPOA, if the United States removes the sanctions.
But in the event that Iran and the United States fail to salvage the JCPOA, Khamenei’s silence will support the hardliners who oppose working with Washington. This silence is why figures like Alavi who are close to Khamenei are speaking out to defend Iran’s latest nuclear activities which violate the terms of the JCPOA.
Alavi, who was appointed directly by Khamenei, thinks the time has arrived to shift Iran’s nuclear policy all together. In a recent interview on national television in Iran, Alavi suggested that Tehran had no need to see the US return to the JCPOA, and in fact the sanctions against Iran strengthened its nuclear industry. In addition, he alluded to the fact that Iran could decide to develop nuclear weapons if it was pressured further.
Rouhani snubbed Alavi over his remarks and said that Iran’s position regarding nuclear weapons had not changed. Iran has often referred to Khamenei’s 2003 nuclear fatwa during the course of nuclear negotiations with the United States, expressing continuously that it is haram to produce nuclear weapons. However, a fatwa is a fluid religious ruling that can change in accordance with the times and circumstances under Shiite Islamic law, a point recently confirmed by Amir Mousavi, an Iranian diplomat and a hardline member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Evidence indicates that Iran’s nuclear activities are bringing it closer to possessing nuclear weapons. Khamenei said recently that Iran has the capacity to increase uranium enrichment levels to higher than 20 percent to reach even 60 percent. These levels are sufficient to help Iran weaponize quickly. Israeli officials say it will take Iran five months to produce three bombs if it can further accelerate its uranium enrichment activities.
Iran-based analysts like Hadi Nasserian are urging for the quick lifting of sanctions to prevent Iran’s further radicalization. But like so many other signals coming from Iran, his perspective is unlikely to convince the United States that sanctions should be removed. Meanwhile, the US State Department has said that it is very concerned by Alavi’s remarks regarding the 2003 nuclear fatwa.
It remains to be seen if tensions between Rouhani and Iran’s hardliners over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program will escalate in the coming weeks and months, or if Tehran decides to reach an agreement with the United States because of pragmatic calculations. For now, Iran is trying to increase pressure on the Biden administration to concede ground prior to new nuclear talks, whereas on the other hand, the US strikes targeting Iranian proxies in Syria indicate Washington’s attempts to impose pressure on Tehran to concede ground first. The Biden administration wants Iran to make the first move towards new nuclear talks, but with the hardliners dominant in Tehran, it remains to be seen whether Rouhani can venture out, or if the nuclear talks will become more of a distant dream when the hardliners take the presidency this year.