UPDATE April 2, 2015: Obama repeated the statement while announcing the framework for a nuclear deal with Iran. Read our original fact check below.
President Barack Obama recently delivered an address to the Iranian people in celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, imploring its citizens to get behind a nuclear deal. While you may have heard about the address, if you did not watch closely, you may have missed the president repeating a critical statement about Iran's nuclear program that has been thoroughly debunked.
Obama stated: "Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons."
A fatwa is a ruling by an Islamic religious authority.
The problem is that no such ruling exists.
Several days ago, former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy penned a post on just this topic in response to similar comments from Secretary of State John Kerry, and before him Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. McCarthy wrote:
[T]he "fatwa" in question does not exist.
The invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has done extensive research into compilations of Khamenei’s published fatwas. (See here and here, and citations therein.) No such fatwa has ever been published. [Emphasis McCarthy's.]
In a sharia state, particularly the one in Iran that is actually run by the country’s top sharia jurists, fatwas are important statements of governing law, like statutes are in the U.S. Yet despite repeated requests, Iran has never produced the purported anti-nuclear weapons fatwa from Khamenei.
Indeed, as MEMRI elaborates, Khamenei was directly asked about the purported fatwa in a 2012 Facebook exchange:
[I]s it also forbidden to obtain nuclear weapons, as per your ruling that their use is prohibited?
He refused to answer the question:
Your question has no jurisprudential aspect. When it has a jurisprudent [sic] position, then it will be possible to answer it.
... Moreover, as MEMRI further documents, there is a published fatwa on the subject of nuclear weapons from credible Shiite sharia scholars. In 2006, it was reported that jurists in Qom had issued a fatwa explicitly stating that “sharia does not forbid the use of nuclear weapons.”
Just last month, U.S. News published an editorial titled "Iran's Nuclear Weapons Fatwa Is a Myth," in which James S. Robbins, a senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and a former special assistant to the secretary of defense's office, noted:
Although Iranian officials have referred to it [the purported anti-nuclear weapon fatwa] repeatedly, it has not been published. By contrast, all of Khamenei’s other fatwas have been. Moreover, Iran has given conflicting dates for its issue, including 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2012.
The nearest thing to an official text can be found on the web page of Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. This version, dated Feb. 19, 2012, declares that "The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons, because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous."
That’s all well and good, but it is not exactly a fatwa. It makes no reference to the Quran or any other Islamic text or tradition, as other religious edicts traditionally do. It reads more like a statement of government policy, and as such, can be changed with the circumstances. In fact, even genuine fatwas can be amended and changed by circumstances.
In a 2013 article by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler on the topic of the fatwa, Kessler wrote:
Oddly, the Iranian Web site [on the purported anti-nuclear fatwa, available here] does not provide the text of the original fatwa — and then mostly cites Western news reports as evidence that Khamenei has reiterated it on several occasions. The fatwa does not appear to be written, but in the Shiite tradition equal weight is given to oral and written opinions.
The most definitive written account of the fatwa appears in a statement that an Iranian official read at an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005: "The 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 the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons."
But Khalaji [Mehdi Khalaji of the of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies] also documents an interesting evolution in Khamenei’s statements over time. Whereas in 2005 Khamenei said that the "production of an atomic bomb is not on our agenda," more recent statements have focused on use of nuclear weapons, often dropping references to the "development" of such weapons.
There is also an issue of translation, often a problem when dealing with Iran. One English language account has Khamenei saying this in 2012:
"We do not pursue to build nuclear weapons. In reality, having nuclear weapons is not to our benefit. From the viewpoint of ideology, theory, and the Islamic jurisprudence, we consider this as forbidden and proliferation of nuclear weapons as a wrong decision. We consider the use of such weapons a great sin while stockpiling it is not only pointless, but also harmful and hazardous. Therefore, we will never try to acquire such weapons."
But Khalaji looked up the actual speech, as displayed in Persian on Khamenei’s official Web site, and rendered his own translation. There’s quite a difference:
"In fact, nuclear weapon is not economically useful for us. Furthermore, intellectually, theoretically and juridically [from Sharia point of view] we consider it wrong and consider this action wrong. We believe using such weapons are a great sin and stockpiling them are futile and harmful and dangerous and never go after it. They [big powers] know this too but they pressure on this point in order to stop this action [the nuclear program]."
Kessler was more circumspect in his conclusion on the existence of an anti-nuclear fatwa than others, writing:
Even if one believes the fatwa exists — and will not later be reversed — it clearly appears to have evolved over time. U.S. officials should be careful about saying the fatwa prohibits the development of nuclear weapons, as that is not especially clear anymore. The administration’s statements at this point do not quite rise to the level of earning Pinocchios, but we will keep an eye on this issue.
And yet Obama repeated it.