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Give me that Old Time Nuclear Fatwa

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — when is a tweet not quite a fatwa? when it’s a tweet! ]
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A day or two ago Tim Furnish pointed me to a recent MEMRI post titled:

Tehran Again Offers Khamenei’s Nonexistent Fatwa In Negotiations As A Guarantee That It Is Not Developing Nuclear Weapons

You can pretty much imagine the content by means of its title, but the piece also contains a lead to Khamenei‘s Twitter feed, and thus to the tweet with which I’ve opened this post.

What to make of it?

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It seems to me that there are two obvious possibilities —

  • the Ayatollah is lying, there is no such fatwa
  • the Ayatlloah is telling the truth, there is such a fatwa
  • Those who are prone to hope may well take the Ayatollah’s word for it — whether or not that trust is justified — while those who are prone to doubt are liable to distrust the Ayatollah…

    And so we’re at that old “trust but verify” business again.

    It seems to me that neither proposition — that a fatwa exists as claimed, but has not been made public, or that no fatwa exists, and claims to the contrary are simply incredible — is verifiable, or falsifiable for that matter. Hunh.

    The one thing that is clear from my POV is that the Ayatollah Khamenei is playing this close to his chest. He could very easily write out a fatwa and publish it, and he doesn’t. He could very easily not have issued a fatwa, which would explain its non-publication. But his refusal to publish a fatwa, while claiming to have issued it, presumably by word of mouth, is a clear indication that he is toying with his interlocutors in the west. And the game is:

    I claim to have given a fatwa — will you take my word for it?

    He’s asking for trust, we’re asking for verification: trust, but verify, it’s not a new idea. And it seems to me that neither axiomatic doubt nor axiomatic trust is the point, although we are mostly prone to one or the other.

    The point is that this is poker. Perhaps this is an obvious truism that others move quickly past on their way to reading the Ayatollah’s “tells” one way or the other. Or perhaps we are so quick to take sides that the idea that we face a formidable opponent in what is essentially a very high stakes game eludes us.

    I’m not a player, I don’t speak or read Farsi, the Shah was still in power when I visited Tehran, I haven’t studied for years in Qom or Najaf, I’m not inclined to make political assertions more than one or two levels above my pay grade, I’m mostly unpaid, and I’m left with this:

    We’re in a game.

    And if that’s the case, intelligence — human intelligence — is the way to read Khamenei’s poker face. And FWIW, Amir Taheri wouldn’t be my go to source for intel.

    **

    BTW, here’s Khamenei’s latest:

    A Clash of Messianisms: now let me get this straight

    Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — slightly tongue-in-cheek, intrigued at a rhetorical level, not sure who here, if anyone, necessarily believes the words they speak ]
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    Okay, let’s see now.

    • In December 2009, Israeli PM Netanyahu said, “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.” 
    • In April 2012, former Israeli Shin Bet intelligence chief Yuval Diskin, said “I don’t believe in either the prime minister (Netanyahu) or the defense minister (Barak). I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings…” 
    • In October 2013, Israeli PM Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly, “In our time the Biblical prophecies are being realized.” 
    • In January 2014, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is quoted as calling Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic”.
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      I told you messianism was a big deal. Now will you listen?

      At the very least, it’s heating up the rhetoric of the the quest for peace…

      So how many “wide-eyed believers” have gotten hold of “the reins of power and the weapons of mass death” at last count?

      **

      I coulda made at least two DoubleQuotes out of that little lot.

    Fukushima: which is worse for you, radiation or paranoia?

    Monday, January 6th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — frankly, I’m more concerned about the spiritually and socially corrosive impact of fear, myself ]
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    I know, technically radiation and paranoia are incommensurables. But still…

    Blog-friend Cheryl Rofer posted today at Nuclear Diner, pointing out the fallacies in some recent reports about Fukushima, spreading like wildfire on the web:

    I particularly like the “Fukushima melt-through point” in one of the illustrations in that apparently original source, reproduced here. That’s referring to the China Syndrome, in which the melted reactor core melts down through the earth. But once it gets to the center, does it keep climbing, against gravity, to that “melt-through point”?

    How much outrageous or stupid stuff does it take to discredit a source? For me, the misuse of the tsunami map and the belief that a core could melt clear through the earth, against gravity, are quite enough.

    Boom!

    I recommend Chery’s whole piece, both to read and to circulate. And she includes a number of other more specific sources worth takeing a look at, including:

  • Radiation Basics
  • True facts about Ocean Radiation and the Fukushima Disaster
  • Is the sea floor littered with dead animals due to radiation? No.
  • Three Reasons Why Fukushima Radiation Has Nothing to Do with Starfish Wasting Syndrome
  • **

    So: which does more harm to us in the long run, radiation – or paranoia?

    The Myhrvold Report and Understanding Strategic Threats

    Monday, October 7th, 2013

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    Several weeks ago, Cheryl Rofer wrote an important post analyzing the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. I found Cheryl’s argument quite persuasive and would like to add a few points of my own; because while some of the concerns raised by Myhrvold are valid and his intent is no doubt well-meaning, the approach he suggests is, at times, problematic.

    If in the past ten years you have been a serious student of terrorism studies, insurgency and COIN, national security, counter-terrorism policy, counter-proliferation policy,  intelligence community affairs and military theory, there is little that will be new for you in the first part of the report. Many of these problems had previously been raised (at least in part) by figures as disparate as Michael Scheuer, John Robb, Martin van Creveld, Thomas P.M. Barnett, William Lind,  Robert Bunker and dozens if not hundreds, of thinkers, practitioners and scholars. In addition, this ground was also covered by government agencies like the National Intelligence Council in its periodic Global Trends reports, and in classified analysis by the Office of Net Assessment and various three letter agencies. The blogosphere also had a lively discussion of catastrophic WMD terrorism, superempowered individuals, 4GW/5GW, apocalyptic Mahdism and related subjects throughout the mid to late 2000’s.  Diffusion of society-shifting power into the hands of small groups and individuals was a theme of Alvin and Heidi Toffler back in the 70’s and 80’s, so this is an old rather than new problem.

    Dr. Myhrvold is a polymathic character, but his original area of specialization was mathematical research so it is not surprising that his approach to things “strategic” is dominated by scalar considerations. Namely, a threat taxonomy based upon potential magnitude of  disaster events up to the extinction of the human race (High M 10).  Wondering here, as the bibliographic references of this report are extremely scanty, if Myhrvold was influenced by Herman Kahns ideas on escalation or game theory based literature on deterrence or something else. Regardless, while there’s some merit to this definition – obviously if your civilization is destroyed or everyone is dead you have suffered the ultimate in strategic defeat – there are weaknesses too as the linear progression of destruction implies an apolitical environment and inevitable process. That’s not how things work with strategy in the real world, neither today nor back in the era of Cold War superpower nuclear brinksmanship. Even John Foster Dulles and Vyacheslav Molotov were more politically nuanced than that.

    This is an important point. Myhrvold is focused on capacity alone rather than in conjunction with political purpose in defining strategic threats.  Capacity in bad hands is worth worrying about and Myhrvold is right when he criticizes the government for their obstinate refusal to develop a robust threat detection system for shipping to US ports of entry ( that’s boring, hard work with little payoff from a political perspective, but the NSA building a system for surveilling all Americans is fun and gives government bureaucrats great potential power to ruin anyone they wish); that said, outside of comic books and James Bond movies, people do not historically initiate violence on an epochal scale out of a Joker-like admiration of nihilism, not even terrorists. Instead, they have a political end in mind for which violence is a tool. This variable appears to be absent from Myhrvold’s thinking.

    More troubling, Myhrvold’s solution to the potential threat of bioweapon terrorism would appear to be, as I infer it, even greater centralization of power in the hands of a national security surveillance state. As I expect Dr. Myhrvold is a great respecter of data-driven, probabilistic logic, he might want to consider that nearly every man-made, high magnitude, lethal event in the past century and a quarter years has been initiated by governments for reasons of policy, up to and including the auto-genocide of tens of millions of their own citizens. Most people on this planet are in far greater danger of harm at the hands of the state than they are as a result of terrorism or foreign attack and it would seem foolish, in light of such statistics, to increase our risk by delegating greater grants of power to the entity most likely to cause us harm. In the words of the late defense and security expert Dr. Fred Ikle, we would be risking Annihilation from Within.

    Ikle anticipated years ago much of what Myhrvold wrestled with in his report and, in my view, prescribed better answers.

    Obama mentions Khamenei “nuclear fatwa”

    Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — I believe this is the first time a US President — perhaps even a senior US official — has affirmed the existence of Ayatollah’s Khamanei’s previously disputed so-called “nuclear fatwa” ]
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    Here, from the Washington Post‘s full transcript of President Obama‘s address to the UN General Assembly, is the relevant section — I’ve emphasized his reference to the fatwa in red:

    Since I took office, I’ve made it clear in letters to the supreme leader in Iran and more recently to President Rouhani that America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully — although we are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. We are not seeking regime change, and we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy. Instead, we insist that the Iranian government meet its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty and U.N. Security Council resolutions.

    Meanwhile, the supreme leader has issued a fatwah against the development of nuclear weapons. And President Rouhani has just recently reiterated that the Islamic republic will never develop a nuclear weapon. So these statements made by our respective governments should offer the basis for a meaningful agreement. We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful. But to succeed, conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.

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    Further reading:

    I believe we tend to underestimate the significance of religious and apocalyptic influences in international affairs, since the development of Iranian nuclear weaponry is a potential casus belli, and since the use of nuclear weapons has a distinctly apocalyptic aura, I’ve tried to take an interest — here’s my lengthy overview of “religion and nukes” in religion and myth worldwide, from 2008.

  • I catalogued my own understandings about the fatwa here on Zenpundit in a 2011 post, Striking Iran — response to Cheryl. I lack access to both Iranian language and classified sources, however, so that post represented a best effort to corral what I could find, but kis far from definitive.

  • Cheryl Rofer has also been following this discussion with interest, and her two posts for Nuclear Diner, The Fatwa Against Nuclear Weapons of January this year and The Nuclear Fatwa of March present her latest understandings — Cheryl, please correct me if you have written anything more recent or more comprehensive.

  • Selfscholar claims to be a “portal for unique, pertinent research on law and human rights in the Middle East”. I cannot speak to the particular interests, influences, credentials or biases of those who posts there, but the materials on our topic, that I have found there — in English but with extensive citations of original texts — will surely provide any researcher who possesses the appropriate language skills with many further pointers to track down… My starting point would be a search of the site for the keywords “nuclear fatwa”. The most recent post there would be Radioactive Fatwas: The Growing Islamist Legitimization of Nuclear Weapons from the 17th of this month. And Go, Learn About Atoms: Iranian Discourse on Nuclear Weapons, 1962-Present, at 32 pp. and posted in June 2013, would appear to offer a detailed historical presentation.

  • **

    And for further context:

  • Yesterday’s Financial Times brought us a piece by Najmeh Bozorgmehr titled Words of seventh-century imam signal Iran’s change of approach, which begins:

    The Iranian regime’s sudden focus on a seventh-century Shia imam may be the strongest indicator yet that Tehran is serious about negotiating on its nuclear programme. Imam Hassan, grandchild of the Prophet Mohammed and the second of 12 Shia imams, is famous for negotiating a peace treaty with those opposed to the principle that only descendants of the prophet could rule over Muslims. In Shia texts, his actions are defended as a compromise for the greater good of the religion, rather than a defeat.

    When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top decision maker, called last week for “heroic flexibility” in talks over the nuclear programme, he was echoing the title of a religious text about Imam Hassan that he translated decades ago: Imam Hassan’s Peace: the Most Glorious Heroic Flexibility in History. The comment boosted hopes in Iran and the west of a possible nuclear deal, even though the ayatollah added that any flexibility was simply a tactic, presumably to deal with a difficult period and head off more economic sanctions or the possible threat of military confrontation with Israel or the US.

  • **

    I’d particularly welcome a post or comment from Selfscholar responding to Pres. Obama’s remarks today, and informed commentary on the Selfscholar site from those with appropriate skills to set it in religious, political, and scholarly context — as well as the usual fine interplay of views in the ZP comments section.


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