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Iran: The "Fatwa" And Obama's Creative Diplomacy

18 January 2013

By Amir Taheri

For decades, the dream of making a deal with Iran has nurtured a veritable industry in the United States. Like other industries, this has been subjected to cyclical change, booming at times and suffering bust at others.

Since President Barack Obama's re-election, the ?talk to Iran? industry has experienced an unprecedented boom. Obama's second administration looks as if it is designed to cajole the mullahs into a fresh attempt at deal-making.

Obama's choices of a new Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Adviser and CIA chief show that Tehran could not have hoped for a more sympathetic team in Washington.

The ?talk to Iran' lobby uses some old clichés. ?Talking is better than fighting? we are told. Also, it is ?better to be a trouble-shooter than a trouble-maker?. And who could disagree? Because deal-making is part of their culture Americans admire politicians who can end conflicts with a compromise. Thus, appeasement marketed as creative diplomacy has generated what the American establishment knows as ?the realistic school of foreign policy.? That ?school? is founded on a number of assumptions.

The first is that conflicts among nations are exclusively caused by divergent material interests.

Countries compete over access to raw materials, markets, and, in the old days, colonies. They may have territorial claims or harbor irredentist dreams against one another. They may also have security concerns about trade routes and/or treatment of ethnic kith-and-kin in other countries.

Remarkably Marxian in nature, that analysis puts material differences at the root of human conflicts, implicitly ruling out the possibility of existential threats caused by ideological differences.

That leads to a second assumption: differences cam be narrowed down to one or two ?concrete? issues.

Successive US administrations narrowed down the conflict with the Soviet Union to the issue of arms control and, over decades, made several deals with Moscow.

Few noticed the absurdity of the exercise. We were told that nuclear weapons prevented war because of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) principle. ?Nuclear weapons are an instrument for peace,? President John Kennedy's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara claimed. If that were the case, why would anyone want to reduce the effectiveness of an ?instrument for peace?? In three decades of ?creative diplomacy? the US and the USSR reduced their capacities for destroying the earth with nuclear weapons from 40 times to just 22 times! Meanwhile the Soviet Union continued its expansionist strategy and remained an existential threat to the United States.

In the 1970s, the USSR reached the peak of its global influence, ironically, with financial support from the United States.

In the end, it was only when Russia stopped being the Soviet Union that it ceased being an existential threat to the US and its allies.

Obama's appeasement squad seems to be heading towards repeating the mistakes of the ?realistic school.? It is trying to reduce issues of conflict with Iran to a single one: Iran's nuclear ambitions.

It then reduces that issue further by narrowing it down to Iran's right to enrich uranium.

That is then narrowed down further to Iran's right to enrich uranium up to 20 per cent. The final narrowing down would let Iran do pretty much what it pleases under ?international supervision?.

But what guarantee is there that the Islamic Republic would not continue a clandestine program? According to Ramin Mehmanparast, spokesman for the Islamic Republic's foreign ministry, Tehran proposes to submit a ?fatwa? from ?Supreme Guide? Ali Khameneni to the United Nations as a guarantee for its commitment not to ?develop, test or deploy? nuclear weapons.

Supposing it exists, the ?fatwa? does not legally commit the Islamic Republic to anything. Nor could it have any effect in accordance with international law. In 1989, when the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued his ?fatwa? for the murder of British novelist Salman Rushdie, successive Tehran officials publicly described it as a religious ?opinion? that did not commit the Iranian government.

At that time, Khamenei was President of the Islamic Republic. On a state visit to Belgrade he told a press conference that Khomeini's ?fatwa? concerned ?all Muslims throughout the world? but could not be regarded as ?the official position of the Islamic Republic.? Even inside Iran the ?fatwa? has no legal authority.

Though the highest political authority in the regime, Khamenei lacks the theological status of a ?Marja'a al-Taqlid? (Source of Emulation).

A ?fatwa? is a religious opinion issued in response to a question put to a ?marj'aa?. It must not be confused with a papal bull.

To become legally binding any ?fatwa? by Khamenei must go through the constitutional process of legislation, verification and final assent.

However, even if all of that is done, there is no guarantee that Khamenei would not issue another ?fatwa? later to cancel the previous one. A regime that violates its own constitution on a daily basis would have little difficulty deceiving the ?Infidel? by issuing ?fatwas? to buy time. The practice acquires some theological sanctions through the principle of ?taqiyah? or dissimulation to deceive an ?Infidel? foe.

No doubt Obama thinks that he is a genius and can succeed where five US presidents before him have failed. Obama may be a genius in the American context if only because he has persuaded more than 60 million Americans to vote for him on two occasions. However, when it comes to dealing with mullahs he might fall victim to hubris. Signs indicate that the mullahs are preparing to lead Obama up the same garden path as followed by his predecessors.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.


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