Islam and the Bomb: Religious Justification for and Against Nuclear Weapons

In a report issued last week through Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former director of the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency's WMD and terrorism efforts, explores the Islamic justification for and against the acquisition, possession and use of nuclear weapons. Rahim Kanani, editor-in-chief of World Affairs Commentary and graduate student at Harvard Divinity School focusing on Islamic studies, human rights, and international security policy, contributed to the research and writing that went into this report.

One of my primary areas of research and writing was the case study of Iran, and an excerpt of that section in the report is published below, while the full report is linked here.


Following the Iranian revolution of 1979, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini is said to have issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons -- some now claim he never uttered such words, while others claim his statement mysteriously disappeared. Iran's current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, issued an anti-nuclear fatwa in September 2004. While sourced by a variety of Iranian authorities, the fatwa itself has yet to be officially released or found. But in light of the many references, it would seem that Khamenei's fatwa is legitimate and absolute. Is the issue then not clear, from a religious point of view? It is not so simple, as the testimony of the following voices from within Iran will attest.

The range of opinion on this matter is far-reaching, with the overwhelming majority of religious voices taking a stand against nuclear weapons. Individuals in opposition include current and former Supreme Leaders of Iran, the former Deputy Supreme Leader, the former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, the Chairman of Parliament of Iran, Iran's Ambassador to Pakistan, and the Grand Marja of Shia Islam, among others. Those in favor of possession, including on a conditional basis as a deterrent and in the context of equal retaliation, include a member of the Iranian Parliaments' Judicial Commission, a member of Iran's Assembly of Experts, and two middle-ranking clerics. It is also important to note that Hezbollah's Secretary-General, Sayyed Nasrallah, recently announced the right to possess any weapon, and as such, the Iran-Hezbollah nexus cannot be ignored if in fact Iran were to realize nuclear weapons capabilities.

As one will recognize from the analysis below, there is a serious internal debate on this issue within the religious community regarding: acquiring such a weapon that cannot distinguish between combatants and non-combatants; the use of WMD as a retaliatory measure if attacked by the same weapon; possessing such a weapon as a deterrent measure; among other issues. Surprisingly, justifying the acquisition of WMD either for equalizing or defensive purposes has rarely if ever been mentioned in the context of any regional threat, including that of Israel.

In producing this survey of Shi'a voices in Iran, no assumptions have been made as to whether or not Iran is indeed pursuing nuclear weapons. By compiling numerous comments made by a range of religious clerics, scholars and authorities over the last several years, the goal is to assess the substance and significance of the religious discourse concerning Shi'a Islam and the permissibility or impermissibility of WMD acquisition, possession and use.

Shia Clerics Against Nuclear Weapons

"The Islamic Republic of Iran, based on its fundamental religious and legal beliefs, would never resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction... In contrast to the propaganda of our enemies, fundamentally we are against any production of weapons of mass destruction in any form."
Ayatollah Khameini Supreme Leader of Iran

"There is complete consensus on this issue. It is self-evident in Islam that it is prohibited to have nuclear bombs. It is eternal law, because the basic function of these weapons is to kill innocent people. This cannot be reversed."
Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei Grand Marja of Shia Islam, Iranian Scholar

"Those in Iran who clandestinely believed they could develop nuclear weapons have now been forced to admit that is forbidden under Islam."
Hussein Shariamadari Managing Editor of Kayhan, an Iranian newspaper.

Continue reading...

Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary.