By Ted Snider
September 30, 2019
In 1982, Iraq changed the nature of their war on Iran. They
began using chemical weapons. At first, it was only tear gas. But, within a
year, Iraq was using mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin and soman on, not
only Iranian soldiers, but Iranian civilians. The downpour of chemicals was
prodigious: the Iraqis later confessed to UN inspectors that they had fired
approximately 100,000 chemical weapons on Iran. The cost was tragic: 20,000
Iranians were killed by the chemicals and as many as 100,000 more suffered
serious injuries from exposure.
Iran immediately implored the UN for help, but help never
came. Though the Security Council refused to act, Secretary-General Javier
Pérez de Cuéllar, acting alone, sent no less than six fact-finding missions to
investigate. They consistently reported that Iraq was raining down chemical
weapons on Iranians. Still, the UN did not act.
Neither did the United States who, as early as 1983, knew
with certainty that Iraq had been using chemical weapons. US intelligence had
confirmed the "almost daily" use of chemical weapons. But, not only
were senior American officials receiving regular briefings on Iraq’s use of
chemical weapons, American intelligence was providing the Iraqi military with
the location of Iranian troops in full knowledge that the Iraqi military was going
to use chemical weapons. They would then help them plan the next set of
strikes. The US would play a leading role in blocking the Security Council from
stopping Iraq. George Shultz, then the secretary of state, would explain
America’s dilemma: "It was a very hard balance. They’re using chemical
weapons. So you want them to stop using chemical weapons. At the same time, you
don’t want Iran to win the war."
Despite the asymmetrical assault, Iran never responded in
kind. They could have: they had the capacity, but not the desire. They lacked
the desire on moral grounds. Chemical weapons, the Ayatollah declared in a
fatwa, an official religious ruling, were haraam, forbidden by God.
Today, as the US intensifies its economic war on Iran and
its threats of "all options on the table," Iran continues to
patiently and rationally offer peaceful solutions. If the US ends its economic
attack, as promised in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear
agreement that the US broke, and congress ratifies it so a future President
cannot just pull out again, Iran will formally ban nuclear weapons under
Iranian law and sign the additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT) to hand the International Atomic Energy Agency the means to enforce
Iran was never engaged in a nuclear weapons program, so they
can’t promise to give up what they never had. They have also promised not to
negotiate a new nuclear deal. But, as formulated by Iranian foreign minister
Javad Zarif, Iran can negotiate a new deal without its being new and promise
only what they have always promised.
It always was a law in Iran – higher than the law in Iran –
that nuclear weapons were banned. They were banned by the same moral law that
barred them from using chemical weapons on Iraq though Iraq was raining
chemical weapons on Iran: they were Haraam, forbidden by God.
Though America’s ally, the shah, occasionally hinted at his
desire for nuclear weapons, America’s enemies, the Ayatollahs, never have. They
have always ruled that nuclear weapons go against Islamic morality. The founder
of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, first and
consistently laid down this ruling; his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has
consistently reiterated it. Khamenei has insisted that "from an
ideological and fiqhi [Islamic jurisprudence] perspective, we consider
developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big
sin." In 2003, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa that declared nuclear
weapons to be forbidden by Islam. And the supreme leader was neither going
rogue nor the exception: "There is complete consensus on this issue,"
said Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, one of the highest-ranking clerics in Iran.
"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.”
So, when Iran offers to formally ban nuclear weapons under
the law, they are not giving up anything or negotiating something new: they are
merely translating a long-standing law into language the Americans can
And as for the offer to sign the additional protocol to the
NPT, that too is not a new compromise by the Iranians. They have historically
been willing to voluntarily accept the additional protocol. The new formulation
only commits Iran to accepting the additional protocols sooner than they were
already committed to under the JCPOA schedule.
The new Iranian position is an opening to deal with Trump in
an impossible situation. It allows Iran to address a demand to give up what
they never had and to be open to negotiating a new deal while keeping their
word not to negotiate a new deal. They are negotiating without negotiating a
new deal because the civic law banning nuclear weapons merely translates the
existing moral law banning nuclear weapons. And signing the additional protocol
to the NPT merely accelerates the existing promise to sign the additional
protocol to the NPT. Under this formulation of the offer, Iran can create the
possibility – however slim – of talking to Trump without backing off of their
promises not to give up anything more nor to negotiate a new deal.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign
policy and history.
Original Headline: Iran, Islam, and Banning the Bomb