When US Secretary of State John Kerry said last month, in a Nowruz interview with the Voice of America’s Persian service, that he and President Barack Obama were “grateful” that Iran’s leader had issued a fatwa banning nuclear weapons, he rekindled a debate about whether the fatwa actually existed.

According to the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei never issued an official fatwa against nuclear weapons, at least not one for which there is any official record.

Other experts told The Jerusalem Post, on the other hand, that a fatwa can be oral and does not have to be written down.

MEMRI argues that the Iranians are lying about the fatwa and that the Obama administration is endorsing it, not necessarily because it believes it, but because it thinks it could be useful for pushing the Iranians toward a deal.

Several former senior US government officials are involved with the organization, among them former CIA directors Michael Hayden and James Woolsey, and Elliot Abrams, a former special assistant to president George W. Bush.

“There have been reports that Khamenei issued a fatwa prohibiting nuclear weapons, yet there is no agreed-upon date, place of where it was said, who heard him say it nor the exact phrase used,” Ayelet Savyon, head of the Iran desk at MEMRI, told the Post on Thursday.

Furthermore, she said MEMRI had searched through all the fatwas listed on all the official websites of Khamenei, including his fatwa website, and it was not listed anywhere.

“Iranians close to the supreme leader don’t know the date of the supposed fatwa themselves,” said Savyon. “The US wants to reach an agreement with Iran and is using the fatwa as a basis from which to proceed.”

Savyon added that the Iranians do not agree to more intrusive inspections, claiming “the so called fatwa makes them and a legal agreement redundant.”

For example, Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament, told the Omani parliament speaker in December 2013 that the fatwa was “more important than [state] law, because unlike the law it cannot be changed.”

Savyon also refers to a 2013 report MEMRI did on Khamenei’s verbal criticism of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for relinquishing his military nuclear weapon facilities in exchange for benefits from the West.

“This statement by Khamenei came later than his previous statements on the issue of nuclear weapons and therefore nullifies them,” she said. “Khamenei said in his March 20, 2011, Persian New Year address: ‘This gentleman [Gaddafi] wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship, and delivered them to the West and said, Take them! Look in what position our nation is, and in what position they [the Libyans] are.’” The latest report on the issue by MEMRI calls attention to Kerry’s statement in the interview with Voice of America’s Persian service.

“Well, I have great respect for a fatwa.

A fatwa is a very highly regarded message of religious importance. And when any fatwa is issued, I think people take it seriously, and so do we, even though it’s not our practice. But we have great respect for what it means,” said Kerry.

He went on to call for using the fatwa as a basis for a legally binding agreement.

“And – but the trick here – the trick – the art, the requirement here, is to translate the fatwa into a legally binding, globally recognized, international understanding.

And so I hope that’s achievable.

And I think it’s a good starting place. And President Obama and I both are extremely welcoming and grateful for the fact that the supreme leader has issued a fatwa declaring that.”

The debate over the murky details of the existence of the fatwa has gone on for years. The question is, why is it being used now by the US administration? “It is now a critical time for the Iran negotiations,” Yigal Carmon, president of MEMRI, told the Post.

“Kerry’s hope will not work because a lie is a lie is a lie, and there is no ‘art’ in endorsing a lie, even for the sake of peace,” Carmon said. “You can’t trap the Iranians into doing what they refuse to do, as you end up deceiving only your own people.”

Steven Emerson, founder and executive director at the Washington-based Investigative Project on Terrorism, told the Post that senior intelligence analysts had said to him that there had been a debate between the analysts at the CIA and the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) over the authenticity of the fatwa.

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