02/26/2013 09:04 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

When Is an Islamic Fatwa not a Fatwa?

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa (or, binding religious decree) condemning author Salman Rushdie to death for his book The Satanic Verses still makes headlines, and is held up as an example of Islam's intolerance and Iran's depravity. So why then has the 2005 fatwa by Khomeini's successor and Iran's present Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decreeing that it is not permissible in Islam to produce, stockpile, or use nuclear weapons barely seen the light of day?

Here are the relevant excerpts from the two fatwas:

"I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled 'Satanic Verses'... as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, are hereby sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Moslems to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctity. Whoever is killed doing this will be regarded as a martyr and will go directly to heaven." -- Ayatollah Khomeini (1989)

From the official U.S. transcript of the proceedings at the 10 August 2005 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting, Ayatollan Khamenei said in 2005, "The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued the fatwa that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that Iran shall never acquire these weapons..."

So seriously was the Rushdie fatwa taken that he was forced to live in secret locations under constant police guard for years. But the fatwa against nuclear weapons has been virtually ignored. If Iran's Rushdie fatwa was accepted at face value, shouldn't the Iranian fatwa against nuclear weapons be interpreted likewise? The New York Times thought so when it wrote that "American officials say they believe that Ayatollah Khamenei exercises full control over Iran's nuclear program."

Now I agree that Iran is not winning many friends by playing loose and fancy-free with its responsibilities for transparency when it comes to the enrichment of uranium. As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has a responsibility to open all its nuclear enrichment facilities to international inspection. And it rightly sets Israelis' teeth on edge with irresponsible talk about eliminating the Jewish state.

(For purposes of comparison I might point out that India, not a nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory, has scores of nuclear weapons, and missiles with which to deliver them. Like Iran, it also refuses to let all its nuclear facilities be inspected. But there are no U.S. sanctions against India. In fact, American nuclear energy companies are free to do as much business with India as they wish.)

Perhaps a case may still be made for sanctions against Iran. But talk of a military attack on Iran if it continues on its path of intransigence, even though it is years away from manufacturing and deploying even one nuclear weapon, seems to me to be a dangerous, foolhardy, and an extremely risky strategy for the United States to follow. Especially in light of the Iranian fatwa that prohibits nuclear weapons.

Or is a fatwa not always a fatwa? One cannot have it both ways. Perhaps Congress should hold hearings on Iran's nuclear fatwa to settle this question once and for all, before America lets loose the dogs of another war in the Middle East.