By Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
web posted May 2, 2022
Amid the moribund nuclear talks in Vienna, on April 24, 2022, former Deputy Chairman of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Motahhari, said in an interview with the Iran Student Correspondents Association (ISCA) that from the start of its nuclear program, Iran sought to produce nuclear weapons but changed the policy at a later stage. “At the beginning, when we launched the nuclear program, our aim was to develop the bomb and improve our deterrent power.” Motahhari quoted parts of Surah al Anfal (60): “And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy.” “However,” Motahhari continued, “we failed to keep it a secret, and our confidential reports were revealed by the monafeqin (hypocrites) [i.e., the exiled opposition organization, Mujahideen Khalq].”
A country that wants to have a peaceful nuclear program never starts with enrichment but constructs a reactor and then starts the enrichment process. When we enrich [uranium] straight away, it creates the impression that we want to develop the bomb…. If we could have developed a bomb secretly and tested it like Pakistan did, it would have been a strong deterrent and international players would have been more considerate of Iran’s status. Other countries rely on nuclear strength. I believe that when we start something, we should see it through to the end…. Iran can build a nuclear bomb because sharia law prohibits only the use of it and not the production of the atomic bomb. [But] Now, the opinion of the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] is that developing a nuclear bomb is definitely haram [religiously forbidden].
Motahhari, asked if his words might influence the future of the faltering Vienna nuclear talks, said, “No one listens to what I say. I have no official post, and my words are my opinion only.”
Ali Motahhari is the son of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, one of the founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran and an ideologist who was close to Khomeini and headed the Revolutionary Council during the inception of the Islamic Revolution. He is also the brother-in-law of Ali Larijani, who was chairman of the Iranian parliament for 12 years and one of the strong critics of former President Ahmadinejad. Motahhari was considered a senior conservative politician and was the second deputy of the Majlis (parliament) chairman from 2016 to 2019. In 2020, however, he was disqualified from running in the 2020 Majlis elections by the Guardian Council, and he urged Khamenei to launch an investigation into the mass disqualification of Majlis candidates. Motahhari had begun to voice more pragmatic positions and affiliate with the conservative-pragmatic camp. In February 2021, he submitted his candidacy for the elections for the Iranian presidency.
The Problematic Parts Were Expunged
Motahhari’s words sparked great interest in the social networks and the world media, and various state-run Iranian media hastened to deny them. Apparently, under tremendous pressure within Iran, the Iran Student Correspondents Association (ISCA) that published the Motahhari interview re-edited it and removed the problematic parts on the nuclear program and Iran’s original intentions to produce nuclear weapons. The only item the outlet kept was Motahhari’s claim that Khamenei is now opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and considers it as haram.
A short time after the interview was broadcast, a “knowledgeable” source denied Motahhari’s assertions. In an interview with the Nour News Agency, which is affiliated with the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the official said Iran’s nuclear program “never had a military dimension and that irresponsible people made statements based on a lack of knowledge or their subjective political opinions.” Iran’s enemies, the official remarked, had been claiming for years that Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons clandestinely, and their aim was to curtail its peaceful nuclear program.4 The Tasnim News Agency quoted Motahhari as retracting his assertion that Iran had sought nuclear weapons, saying in a clarification that “the hypocrites distorted Iran’s involvement with the issue.” Much of the Iranian media quoted the Nour Agency and published Motahhari’s clarification.
Motahhari: I Was Misunderstood
After the heavy pressure apparently exerted on him, on April 25, Motahhari issued a denial on his Instagram account, saying his words were taken out of context and Iran had never sought nuclear weapons.
What I said was that at the beginning, there were people who believed that building bombs to scare the enemy away was acceptable…the sentence has not been properly reflected by ISCA.
Despite what the Mujahideen Khalq claimed, Motahhari said, “The Islamic Republic has never sought to develop atomic bombs in policy and purpose. The Supreme Leader has also issued a religious decree [fatwa] prohibiting them.” The Mujahideen Khalq responded by rebroadcasting Motahhari’s original interview with ISCA in social and international media.
Was There Ever a Fatwa Prohibiting Use of Nuclear Weapons?
In recent years, Iran has claimed that Khamenei issued a fatwa prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons, and he periodically reiterates this point in the section of Khamenei’s website dealing with religious-law issues. Toward the end, there is a reference to “the sacred prohibition [haram] of weapons of mass destruction.”
One area of the site presents a message from Khamenei in four languages (Farsi, Arabic, English, and Spanish) to the 2011 session of the Conference on Disarmament, stating: “We believe that alongside nuclear weapons, all kinds of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical or biological weapons, pose a serious danger to the human race…. Iran has had the experience of this…. We see the use/deployment [كاربرد] of such weapons as haram and believe that everyone is obligated to invest all efforts in safeguarding the future of humanity against such a catastrophe.” The message (defined as a fatwa) was conveyed to the United Nations and officially recorded.
On the issue of prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons, Khamenei also referred to the conference of Iran’s Assembly of Experts on February 22, 2021. He wrote:
“Our Islamic thought says that weapons whose use will cause the killing of innocent people, and not military personnel, are prohibited. Such weapons are prohibited, whether they are nuclear or chemical. Such weapons are prohibited because this is the position of Islam, and because of the position of Islam, we have not sought nuclear weapons; otherwise, if we wanted to do so, who are you, what is your role [Israel and the West], that you could prevent us.”
In any case, Motahhari’s words, amid the crisis in the Vienna nuclear talks, reflect the disagreements within Iran’s military-religious leadership on the development and use of nuclear weapons as well as the negotiating strategy in Vienna. It appears that, at present, Iran prefers to take the stance touting Khamenei’s fatwa, which prohibits the use of nuclear weapons, but it does not necessarily ban their continued clandestine development and production for purposes of deterrence.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.