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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (center) speaks to armed forces commanders in April.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the last say in all state matters, has spoken out publicly against nuclear weapons.

In a March meeting with nuclear scientists, Khamenei said that Iran considers the possession of nuclear weapons to be a sin and that the country would not pursue them.

Iranian media have also reported that Khamenei issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against such weapons.

But amid escalating tensions with the West over Tehran's nuclear program, which the country's leaders insist is for peaceful purposes, the reported fatwa is being scrutinized anew.

Will the alleged ban hold up in practice and under all circumstances? Can the fatwa be reversed?

Those questions are being debated by analysts in the West, but also among regime supporters inside Iran.

Teribon.ir, a hard-line Iranian website, recently asked, “Aren’t nuclear weapons needed to preserve the Islamic establishment?”

The website was referring to comments made by the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruollah Khomeini, who said that preserving the Islamic establishment is an obligation that supersedes all others.

"If regional and international conditions become such that Iran will find it necessary to build nonconventional weapons for its own survival," Teribon.ru asked, "would it be permissible to build nuclear weapons?"

An Iranian cleric and researcher, Hojatoleslam Hossein Ali Salmanian, who was interviewed by the website, suggested that nuclear weapons cannot function as a tool for the preservation of the Iranian establishment.

“Nuclear weapons will also threaten us. It is likely that they will lead to the death of people in the Islamic republic and elsewhere in the world. They won’t help at all to preserve our establishment," said the cleric. He noted that a nuclear weapons capability did not prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"What if [Iran] is attacked in a way that it has no choice but to use nuclear weapons?" Teribon.ru asked in a follow-up question.

Some observers have warned that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities could lead the country to pursue nuclear weapons, prompting a reversal of Khamenei's ruling.

Salmanian responded by saying he didn't believe the United States or Israel would use nuclear weapons against Iran in the event of a military conflict.

As far as the West is concerned, Khamenei’s alleged fatwa clearly has not erased fears that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.

But Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser at the U.S. State Department, says Khamenei's public stance against nuclear weapons is significant in that it can help in negotiations with Tehran.

Nasr says that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who met with Khamenei in March, later told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the supreme leader's public comments could be used as “political leverage” and that Washington shouldn’t miss the opportunity.

“When Erdogan and Davutoglu met with Khamenei in March, they got an earful about [his nuclear stance]. You can take it any which way you want. You could think that they’re practicing dissimulation, or hiding their true intent, which could be said about any political position; or you could assume that the Iranians were sending a very clear signal that they were going to meet [U.S. President Barack] Obama’s red line [of weaponization]," Nasr said at an April 16 event at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On April 1, Clinton called on Iran to substantiate its forswearal of nuclear weapons. She said Tehran's policy could be demonstrated in a number of ways, including shipping out some of Iran’s enriched uranium in exchange for fuel for its research reactor and opening up its nuclear facilities to inspectors.

European Union diplomats who took part in last weekend's nuclear talks in Istanbul have said that Khamenei's fatwa was mentioned by the Iranian delegation.

The diplomats likely offered the same response as Clinton: Prove it.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari
Alan Eyre says any U.S. official who speaks a bit of Persian and is fond of Iran is seen as a spy in the eyes of the Iranian government.
The online publication of an interview with the U.S. State Department's Persian spokesman by a conservative Iranian website appears to have been pulled following official criticism and condemnation.

Iran's Culture Ministry said in a statement on April 4 that there was no justification for the Alef website to allow what it called a U.S. "intelligence officer" the opportunity to respond to questions from Iranians.

The ministry said it "condemns the extraordinary move" and "invites the media to avoid any cooperation with figures and media that are opposed to the Islamic system."

The furor began on April 3, when Alef -- which is said to have ties to conservative lawmaker Ali Tavakoli -- called on its readers to send in questions for its upcoming interview with the State Department's Persian-language spokesman, Alan Eyre.

The website also posted a short bio of Eyre, who is a fluent Persian speaker and who in recent months has been reaching out to Iranians via appearances on Persian-language media and social-networking sites.

'A CIA Spy'

Alef's invitation to Eyre raised eyebrows and was criticized by other conservative websites -- some of which described the decision as "odd" and accused Eyre of being an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The website of Rajanews, which is said to be close to the government, accused Alef of becoming a platform for the "evil U.S. government" at a time when Washington has imposed "the toughest pressure and sanctions" against Iran.

Rajanews said Alef failed to give its readers any background about "the enmity of the U.S. government toward the Iranian nation and the Islamic Revolution."

"An ordinary user might think that Eyre, the spokesman of the State Department of the evil U.S. government, is an American interested in Iran's history and civilization who intends to respond to questions...of Iranians with goodwill."

Another website, The Journalists Club, accused Eyre of being an agent for the CIA, who is using his spokesman position as cover to spy on Iranians. The site said Alef's decision to engage with Eyre had no political or national justification.

Several hours after it went up, Alef removed the webpage advertising the conversation with a "special guest" without explanation. Site editors did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Talking About U.S. Talks Taboo

For his part, Eyre posted the story accusing him of being a CIA agent on his Facebook page and wrote that any U.S. official who speaks a bit of Persian and is fond of Iran is seen as a spy in the eyes of the Iranian government.

Eyre had earlier confirmed to RFE/RL by e-mail that he was set to be an online guest on Alef. A U.S. official told RFE/RL that government policy was to try and engage the Iranian people through Eyre and other avenues, and that the State Department hoped the interview with Alef would eventually be published in its entirety.

The very idea of direct talks with U.S. officials has been a sensitive matter in the Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution, when the United States severed ties with Tehran following the hostage taking of U.S. diplomats.

In recent months, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been criticized by his opponents for talking about the possible resumption of ties with the United States. They say any decision about the future of relations with Washington is up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who always has the last say in Iran. Ahmadinejad has been engaged in a power struggle with allies of Khamenei for some time.

Ironically, Alef's plan to have Eyre as an online guest appears to have provided an opportunity for Ahmadinejad's supporters to strike back at his critics.

Rajanews asked, "How come the most insignificant statement by a government official [Ahmadinejad] about the resumption of ties with the U.S. is met with such harsh reaction...but Alef can hold an exclusive conversation with a senior White House official?"

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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