Shiite Principles Allow Iran To Lie About Nuclear Plans, Russian Scholar Says


The current standoff between Iran and much of the rest of the world over nuclear issues, one of Russia’s leading specialists on Islam says, is complicated by the specific features of Shiite Islam regarding dealings with non-Muslims, features that not only provide for but in fact justify lying by Shiite political leaders tabout their plans.

In an essay in the current issue of “NG-Religii,” Ignatenko, the president of the Moscow Institute of Religion and Politics and a member of Dmitry Medvedev’s Council on Relations with Religious Organizations, discusses these features and their consequences for current and future exchanges (

According to Ignatenko, “in discussions about the Iranian nuclear bomb there is a clash between two different political cultures,” a Western one which is “rational” and which requires clear and unambiguous answers to questions” and “Islamic political culture, the basis of which is the use of cleverness and their combinations.

And there is, the Moscow scholar continues, “one additional principled distinction: Western politicians are responsible to their citizens and worry about being caught lying,” while “Iranian [leaders] are responsible before Allah, who prohibits lying” but whose followers have interpreted that ban in interesting ways.

“In all schools of Islamic shariat … in addition to the common definition of a lie (‘qizb’), there are a multitude of other terms which designate other kinds of deception which allow those who follow this system to get around the religious prohibition on lies” and in certain cases even justify doing exactly that, Ignatenko says.

Iranian Shiites, the Moscow scholar goes on, have the principle of “taqia,” which “allows a Shiite in the case of definite danger to conceal his true faith and even to assert that he is a Sunni. Or [more generally, Ignatenko continues] to conceal his political views and goals,” something that opens the way to outright lies.

Indeed, drawing on this idea, “cleverness, deception or confusing an opponent is not only not prohibited but it is even recommended,” on the basis of numerous Koranic passages. The Koran asserts that “Allah has all cleverness” (13:42), and a hadith ascribed to the Prophet Mohammed has it that “war is deception.”

Recently, Ignatenko continues, “Ali Aqbar Salehi, the Iranian vice president who oversees Tehran’s nuclear program, wrote in a Russian newspaper that “Our spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Hameni has declared that the creation of a [nuclear] bomb is illegally and contradicts Islam. A nuclear bomb is something prohibited,” as is its possession and use.

That might seem to some to be an absolute assertion that Iran will not build a bomb, the Moscow researcher says, but “read this passage again. Here is not said precisely and unambiguously that the Iranians will not create a nuclear bomb,” adding that he, Ignatenko, would not want anyone concerned about Iran’s plans to be less so as a result.

The reason is that today such a weapon may be “a sin,” but tomorrow it can be “permitted.” As the Moscow scholar notes, “The Shiite religious leadership have a very convenient principle: ‘according to the conditions of the time’ which allows them with a pure conscience to publish fetwas that contradict one another on any given question.”

In 1979, for example, Imam Khomeini declared the caviar business to be “sinful” before he came to power, but then after he overthrew the shah, he issued “a special fetwa which completely overturned the content of the earlier one” and declared that the production and sale of caviar was permitted.

Another reason for being skeptical about Iranian statements, Ignatenko says, has to do with the Shiite understanding of theodicy, of the way in which evil emerged in a world created by a totally good Allah. That involves the principle of “emanation” — in Persian, “faiz” — which holds that something which is at one time good or bad may be transformed into its opposite.

And in addition, Ignatenko continues, “an analysis of the declarations of the Iranian leadership and its real actions in the foreign policy arena in the light of the traditions of Islamic political culture shows that the Iranians are following a strategy which could be called, ‘two melons in one hand,’ derived from the Persian saying that ‘one can’t hold two melons at once.’”

At present, he argues, Tehran is pursuing two different goals: the nuclearization of Iran and the expansion of Iranian influence in the Greater Middle East, each of which has the intended effect of detracting the attention of some from the other and thus opening the way for Iran to succeed in ways they do not expect.

This dual purpose, Ignatenko says, explains why Iran, “instead of making friends with its Arab neighbors against Israel and the United States, is manifesting antagonism” to them. That distracts some but far from all Arabs from seeing the Iranian threat just as Iran’s nuclear project distorts the understanding of the West from Tehran’s regional activities.

“The gradual nuclearization of Iran which is taking place in reality plays the role of a ‘red flag’ which the clever Iranians throw out when it is necessary to distract attention from the unceasing process of the creation by them of ‘a Shiite crescent’” across the Middle East, Ignatenko continues.

And such a distraction gives Iran something else: a chance to “realize its genuine goals [because] the international community is ready to assist the nuclearization of Iran on favorable conditions, as long as it rejects the creation of nuclear weapons. But Iran has not refused.” And it will continue to use the bomb as a kind of negotiating instrument in “a Persian bazaar.”

According to Ignatenko, there have been signals from Washington concerning a possible American recognition of “a regional role” for Iran. And it “must not be excluded that the US is prepared” to yield to Iran regarding the Arab countries if Tehran agrees not to produce a nuclear weapon.

“The deteriorating relations of the US with Israel under Barak Obama demonstrate that the American do not have ‘eternal allies,’” Ignatenko insists, adding that “it is perfectly possible that the US and Iran are conducting secret talks.” If that is happening, he concludes, then Israel and the Arab countries may find common ground – against Iran.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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