At various times religion has played a central if often contradictory role in the debate over Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian leaders, for example, have often invoked Islam in arguing that they do not harbor ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei, for instance, has issued a fatwa (Islamic edict) against nuclear weapons and has repeatedly used religion in his speeches on nuclear weapons, declaring in 2010, “We have said repeatedly that our religious beliefs and principles prohibit such weapons as they are the symbol of destruction of generations. And for this reason we do not believe in weapons and atomic bombs and do not seek them.”
Similarly, Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, issued a fatwa against the acquisition of a nuclear bomb. The recent election of Hassan Rouhani, considered to be a relatively moderate cleric-politician, has sparked hopes in the West that the new Iranian administration would be less wedded to religious ideology.
The reaction in the United States to these statements reveals how Americans view the relationship between religion and nuclear weapons policy. On the one hand, the Western world has often used the Islamic aspect of the Islamic Republic as a central reason why Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Western leaders attempt to exploit the anti-nuclear statements by Islamic clerics. This underscores the West’s parochial understanding of the role that religion plays in public life, particularly in Islamic societies, and leads it to distort policies toward Iran.
Iran, while not a North Korean-style closed society, remains enigmatic to Western analysts. Islam is a convenient lens through which to analyze its behavior. This type of analysis also fits in with a larger discourse that has become particularly influential post- 9/11, which views the Islamic “Other” as motivated by religious imperatives.
Some scholars encourage us to take religious leaders’ views of state policy seriously. Gary Sick, who worked on Iran at the National Security Council during the Jimmy Carter administration, puts considerable credence in Khamenei’s rejection of nuclear weapons: “People may not follow him as their personal ayatollah, but when he makes a statement that has to do with security and the state there is nobody that can contradict him.”
Typically, however, Western scholars who believe that religion is central to Iran’s foreign policy are alarmed by the theological component. According to this viewpoint, religious imperatives are non-rational and therefore those guided by religion are impervious to deterrence.
A good example is Bernard Lewis, a Princeton historian who has written extensively about Islam and the Arab world and advised U.S. and Western governments. In a 2008 lecture, Lewis told his audience that Iran is “a Muslim country, ruled now by a Muslim theocracy, which calculates its policies not by Iranian national interests, but by what is good for Islam.” Starting from this logic, he concluded:
“Though Russia and the U.S. both had nuclear weapons, it was clear that they would never use them because of MAD — mutual assured destruction. Each side knew it would be destroyed if it would attack the other. But with these people in Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent factor, but rather an inducement. They feel that they can hasten the final messianic process.”
Other observers of Iran do not believe that religious considerations dominate. Trita Parsi, for instance, finds Tehran’s policies to be consistent with the tenets of the international relations theory of Realism: policies are crafted to maintain and increase the power of the Iranian state relative to its adversaries. In his first book, Treacherous Alliance, Parsi writes: “As much as the Iranian leaders may have wanted to pursue their ideological goals, no force in Iranian foreign policy is as dominant as geopolitical considerations.”
Regardless of whether Shi’a Islam drives Iranian decision-making or not, the key point is that Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, often hold a contradictory view on the role of religion in public life. Specifically, while Washington is alarmed when other countries’ appear to mix religion and nuclear policy, American politicians readily admit their religious beliefs influence their decisions in public life.
For example, the rising “Tea Party” Senator, who many believe holds presidential ambitions, Rand Paul (R-KY) has declared: "I see decisions government makes almost always in moral terms." Elsewhere, Senator Paul called for standing “with our fellow Christians in the Middle East and around the world” and railed against the U.S. sending foreign aid to countries that are “hostile” towards Christians, such as Pakistan and Egypt.
Similarly, in the vice-presidential debate during the 2012 election, the Republican candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) said "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do."
Evangelical Christians have also exercised a strong influence on U.S. public policy for decades. This spills over into foreign policy. A good example is Evangelical Christians’ lobbying on behalf of Israel. For instance, during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, 3,500 evangelicals organized a conference in Washington under the banner of a newly-formed group called, Christians United for Israel. The head of Christians United for Israel, Rev. John Hagee—who was given an audience at the White House at the time— told the conference attendees that the Israel-Hezbollah conflict was a fight between “good and evil” and supporting Israel was “God’s foreign policy.”
Constructivist scholars have advocated a strategy of “rhetorical entrapment,” which would hold Iranian religious leaders to their own declarations. This is similar to President Obama’s urging of Iranian leaders to create “consistency between their actions and their statements.” Ironically, this was the same interview in which he declared on the topic of threatening a nuclear strike: “I don’t bluff.”
Quite apart from its slim chance of changing attitudes in Tehran, this rhetorical strategy runs the danger of strengthening the importance of religious leaders in Iran—where they are in fact deploying Islam as a weapon in their battles with their opponents. This strategy also further strengthens elite and public views in the West that Islam drives Iranian nuclear program.
Attempts from the outside to decipher the legitimacy and weight of religious claims on Iranian policies are likely to be futile and misleading. The real issue at hand is Tehran’s desire to be taken seriously, as a legitimate international actor. Stereotyping Iranian decisions as religiously-inspired will only hurt its claims to legitimacy, when in fact we should be encouraging responsible voices within Iran.
Ksenia Bergantz is a recent graduate of the Political Science program at San Jose State University. Karthika Sasikumar teaches International Relations at San Jose State University.