Stephen M. Walt

Guest post: Using religion to restrain Iran’s nuclear program

Guest post: Using religion to restrain Iran’s nuclear program

I’m pleased to present the following guest post from Nina Tannenwald of Brown University. Alert readers will note that she is writing from a constructivist rather than realist perspective, but when you’re trying to avoid a foolish war, paradigmatic loyalty is a decidedly secondary consideration.

Nina Tannenwald writes:

At a time when anti-Iran hawks are beating the drums of war, the international community needs to pursue all possible routes to a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear challenge. One route that has not been tried is harnessing moral and religious norms as a source of nuclear restraint. Incongruous as it may seem, Iran’s leaders have repeatedly stated that nuclear weapons are "un-Islamic." Why not hold them to it?

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa, a religious decree, in 2004, describing the use of nuclear weapons as "immoral." In a statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in August 2005, the Iranian chief nuclear negotiator, Sirus Naseri, read a statement reiterating Khameini’s fatwa that "the production, stockpiling, or use of nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam." Many regime figures have repeated the prohibition, including Khamanei himself, who said in 2010 that Islam considered weapons of mass destruction (WMD) "to be symbols of genocide and are, therefore, forbidden and considered to be haraam [forbidden in Islam]."

No other national leader anywhere has ever asserted that nuclear weapons are, say, "un-Christian" or "un-Jewish" (although Western religious leaders and scholars have expressed such views).

Iran’s leaders could be dissembling, of course, as part of their effort to mislead the international community. But no one forced them to say this — let alone to repeat it publicly — and Khameini has not repudiated this fatwa even as Iran’s nuclear program has advanced. It would be strange for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its adherence to Islam to keep asserting this point if it were really totally insincere.

We don’t need to take the Iranians at face value, but why not take advantage of the opening their own words provide? The international community should capitalize on this element of restraint. We should hold them to it.

How might this work? Diplomats should refer to the statements approvingly and frequently. President Obama should use his rhetorical gifts to publicly acknowledge the Iranian prohibition and state that, as a person of faith himself, he respects and welcomes the testament. The goal would be to invoke Islamic moral values as a positive contribution to both Iranian and global nuclear restraint.

A second approach would involve "Track II" diplomacy. This would entail holding conferences that bring together religious scholars and ethicists from different religions, along with government officials and nuclear strategists from key countries to discuss ethical constraints on nuclear weapons. This would be a good project for foundations to support.

This strategy — a normative one — would not replace sanctions. Rather, by invoking Islam’s moral contribution in a positive way, and by connecting it to longer term efforts toward global nuclear disarmament, it could help provide Iranian leaders with the political cover and respect to engage in negotiations over their nuclear program.

International relations scholars have a term for this kind of normative strategy: "rhetorical entrapment." Developed especially in constructivist analyses of human rights, it refers to how NGOs especially, but also states and international organizations, seek to hold leaders accountable to their publically-stated commitments to moral values or norms. Leaders can become "entrapped" in a public debate over their adherence. The act of holding the debate increases the salience and legitimacy of the norms at issue and thereby raises the legitimacy, or normative, costs to the regime of violating its own commitments.

Thus, in contrast to a realist strategy for dealing with a recalcitrant state, which emphasizes imposing material costs (sanctions, military threats), a constructivist strategy emphasizes raising the normative (legitimacy) costs of a violation. This approach assumes that leaders care about certain kinds of legitimacy (in this case, fidelity to Islam), just as the realist strategy assumes that states will be vulnerable to material sanctions and threats.

Is this normative approach to Iran pie-in-the-sky? Realists may snicker, but, historically, religious and moral norms have played an important role in shaping our thinking about nuclear weapons. Christian churches and other religious groups played a key role in the anti-nuclear weapons movements of the 1950s and 1980s. Their moral critique of nuclear weapons made it impossible to think of such a weapon as "just another weapon." Perhaps most prominent was the American Catholic bishops’ influential 1982 pastoral letter criticizing nuclear deterrence as "morally flawed." This powerful statement provoked a widespread debate about the ethics of the nuclear arms race and helped undermine public support for aggressive nuclear strategies.

Iran has good reason to harbor a special revulsion toward weapons of mass destruction. It is the second largest victim of WMD attacks after Japan. Iran suffered over 100,000 casualties, both military and civilian, from Iraqi chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Iran did not retaliate in kind partly because it was unprepared but also because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini believed that chemical weapons were prohibited by Islam.

This experience deeply affected the national psyche of a generation of Iranians. Adding to the bitterness is the Iranian perception that the West was mostly indifferent to this suffering. Western countries quietly sided with Saddam Hussein in the war and failed to strongly condemn the chemical weapons attacks. Thus Iran surely has something to contribute to the global moral discourse on weapons of mass destruction.

The repressive Iranian regime is distasteful for reasons that go well beyond nuclear weapons, and no one who cares about the fate of the Middle East should want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet significant evidence suggests that Iranian leaders, while clearly determined to acquire a nuclear capability, have not yet made a decision to actually build a nuclear warhead. Invoking the value and worth of the Iranian regime’s own publically-stated moral norms may help to reinforce more realist reasons for restraint, such as economic sanctions, military threats, or fears of provoking a nuclear arms race in the region.

Like anything else, this moral appeal may not work. But there is little to lose. To date, the key international players have shown a striking lack of diplomatic imagination in dealing with the Iranian challenge. Harnessing cultural and religious resources might facilitate a peaceful solution to this looming crisis and contribute to restraint on all sides. Of course, there is also the "boomerang" effect: engaging Iran in this conversation might require us to confront the status of our own moral values with respect to nuclear weapons.

Nina Tannenwald teaches international relations at Brown University. Her book, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Nonuse of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945, received the 2009 Joseph Lepgold Prize.