Kessler cited Khalaji as asserting that Khomeini had abruptly shifted course on various issues, such as woman's suffrage and the eating of sturgeon. ("He was also against the eating of sturgeon -- until he was for it," Kessler commented tartly.) The implication the reader is invited to draw from those comments is that Khomeini's fatwas were arbitrary, changeable and therefore could not have been the definitive factor in anything so weighty as weapons of mass destruction.
But as can be seen from detailed account of what actually transpired in regard to Khomeini's fatwa making sturgeon halal (allowed) rather than haram (forbidden) under Islam makes it clear that Khalaji's cavalier dismissal of Khomeini'a fatwas as "abruptly shifting course" is grossly inaccurate.
Khalaji is also Kessler's source for the more serious claim that Khamenei's fatwa no longer applies to the possession of nuclear weapons as distinct from their use. "Whereas in 2005 Khamenei said that the 'production of an atomic bomb is not on our agenda,'" wrote Kessler, "more recent statements have focused on use of nuclear weapons, often dropping references to the 'development' of such weapons."
But Khamenei's 2005 statement was not about the "development" of nuclear weapons but about their "production." As Khalaji himself reported in a 2011 article, what Khamenei actually said was, "Islam does not allow us [to produce the atomic bomb]." The crucial bracketed phrase was added by Khalaji himself.
The only question, therefore, is whether Khamenei has indeed stopped referring to the "production" of nuclear weapons. Kessler quoted from a 2012 Khamenei speech in which Khamenei clearly indicates that his fatwa bans the production of nuclear weapons. Here is the English-language translation that Kessler quoted:
"We do not pursue to build nuclear weapons. In reality, having nuclear weapons is not to our benefit. From the viewpoint of ideology, theory, and the Islamic jurisprudence, we consider this as forbidden and proliferation of nuclear weapons as a wrong decision."
The quote provided by Kessler himself thus directly contradicts his own claim that Khamenei had begun to focus only on the "use of nuclear weapons" and had backed off on his ban on the building and possession of nuclear weapons.
Clearly recognizing the contradiction, Kessler then suggested there is something wrong with the English-language translation. He cited an alternative translation of the same 2012 Khamenei statement quoted above by Khalaji (who, of course, had inserted the bracketed material in the original):
"In fact, nuclear weapon is not economically useful for us. Furthermore, intellectually, theoretically and juridically [from Sharia point of view] we consider it wrong and consider this action wrong."
Kessler claimed that there is "quite a difference" between the two translations. But even a quick comparison of the two reveals that there is no substantive difference between them. The reference in Khalaji's translation to "this action" in the second sentence clearly implies that Khamenei had included an active verb in the first sentence, which the official version had translated as "pursue to build a nuclear weapon." Otherwise, the phrase "this action" makes no sense.
Khalaji thus appears to have bowdlerized the sentence in his translation so as to make it appear that Khamenei had not said that Iran considered the pursuit of building a nuclear weapon juridically "wrong."
Kessler's column uses the gimmick of assigning "Pinocchios" to those whose political pronouncements turn out to be untrue, with the number of such long noses indicating the seriousness of the untruth. In this case, Kessler chose not to give the Obama administration any such bad marks, concluding that Kerry's statements "do not quite rise to the level of earning Pinocchios."
But Kessler's column itself would seem to warrant three "Pinocchios" -- one for each of the three false claims that appeared therein. Kessler's failure to check primary sources, his exclusive reliance on a researcher from a pro-Israeli think tank, his introduction of a false criterion for judging whether Khamenei has retreated from the fatwa and his unwarranted suggestion that an official translation of Khamenei's statement had somehow been altered to change Khamanei's meaning all raises serious questions about the objectivity and thoroughness of his fact-checking on this issue.
Kessler's failure in fact-checking on the Khamenei fatwa is symptomatic of a much larger problem. For many years, news media have systematically failed to check the facts in regard to one claim after another about alleged Iranian ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. The result is a narrative about the Iranian nuclear program that is highly distorted and needs to corrected in order to have a rational discussion of the issue.