After quoting Secretary of State John Kerry's acknowledgment in November of Khamenei's fatwa against the possession or use of nuclear weapons, Kessler referred to it as "the alleged fatwa" and as a "diplomatic MacGuffin." A "McGuffin" is a device that moves the plot forward but, as Kessler put it, is "unimportant to the overall story."
Kessler argued that the fatwa "gives the Americans a reason to begin to trust the Iranians and the Iranians a reason to make a deal." But he asserted that U.S. officials were wrong to suggest that the fatwa "prohibits the development of nuclear weapons."
While acknowledging that Khamenei may have issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, he cited three reasons why greater skepticism by these officials about the fatwa is called for. In all three cases, however, Kessler failed to examine the available evidence carefully and offered conclusions that are clearly contradicted by that evidence.
Kessler noted that Khamenei's fatwa, first issued in 2003, linked the ban on nuclear weapons to an earlier fatwa by the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that banned the production of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. But according to Kessler, there was no such chemical weapons ban, and thus Khamenei's fatwa against nuclear weapons should not be trusted. He wrote:
"Iran admitted to chemical weapons production after it ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997, and U.S. intelligence agencies suspected Iran of maintaining a chemical weapons stockpile at least until 2003. So what does it say if the origin of the supposed fatwa is based on a misleading statement?"
It has indeed been the official position of the U.S. intelligence community -- and has been repeated many times by secondary sources over the years -- that Iran admitted to the CWC's governing body in 1997 that it had produced chemical weapons during the war. But Kessler apparently did not check the original text of the supposed Iranian "admission." He relied instead on a secondary source that only cited the reference to the Iranian statement, along with an Israeli press article claiming that Iran had admitted to having had chemical weapons.
But the full text of the statement in question, submitted to the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) by Iranian Ambassador Mohammad R. Alborzi in November 1998, is available on the Internet. Had Kessler looked it up, he would have learned that Alborzi did not in fact say that Iran had produced chemical weapons.
What Alborzi actually said is that, confronted with repeated chemical attacks by Iraq over several years...
"Iran was left with no alternative but to seek an effective means of deterrence in the hope that it could halt or at least limit the barrage of these barbarous weapons on its people... In this context, the decision was made that, on a strictly limited scale, capability should be developed to challenge the imminent threat particularly against the civilian populated centers.
"We declared, at the time, that Iran had chemical weapons capability, while maintaining the policy not to resort to these weapons and rely on diplomacy as the sole mechanism to stop their use by its adversary. The war ended soon after. Following the establishment of ceasefire, the decision to develop chemical weapons capabilities was reversed and the process was terminated."
Moreover, Alborzi's statement was fully consistent with what Iran had said during the war. On Dec. 29, 1987, Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi said, "The Islamic Republic is capable of manufacturing chemical weapons and possesses the technology." But he also said, "[W]e will produce them only when Islam allows us and when we are compelled to do so."
The Iranians were clearly engaging in an effort to deter Iraq's use of chemical weapons by letting it be known that it could produce such weapons if the Iraqi chemical attacks did not cease. The State Department actually commented publicly in April 1985 that Iran was "developing a chemical weapons capability." And the CIA had repeatedly made the same distinction between developing the "capability" for making unconventional weapons and actually manufacturing them in its reports on Iran's WMD programs to Congress in the late 1990s.
The published record on Iran's policy toward chemical weapons has been distorted by the general acceptance of the idea that both Iraq and Iran had used chemical weapons in 1988 against the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja. That belief had been actively promoted by officials of the Defense Intelligence Agency who had also been involved in assisting the Iraqi military in its air offensive against Iranian forces, as former Washington Post correspondent Patrick Tyler later revealed.
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But a 2007 book by Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group's former deputy director for the Middle East and North and its current chief operating officer, on the Halabja attack definitively refuted the idea that Iran had used chemical weapons on that occasion or at any other time or place during the Ira-Iraq War.
Contrary to Kessler's claim, therefore, Khamenei was not lying when he said in a 2003 speech, "Even when Iraq attacked us by chemical weapons, we did not produce chemical weapons."
Moreover, the reason for Iran's decision to forgo producing, let alone using chemical weapons in retaliation was not that it lacked the ability to do so. Iran's chemical sector was at least equal to, if not more advanced than that of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, according to a study for the Harvard Sussex Program.
What U.S. officials and the news media have been loathe to acknowledge is that Khomeini considered chemical weapons illegal under Islam, and that his judgment was binding on the Iranian government -- just as Khamenei noted in the speech declaring nuclear weapons likewise illegal.
[In an update, Kessler admitted that Porter was correct in his distinction between the production of chemical weapons and the capability to produce chemical weapons. "He is certainly correct we should have linked to an original document, but we could not find one, and are pleased to do so now
," Kessler wrote.]
Kessler's second and third arguments were based entirely on the opinions of Mehdi Khalaji, whom he appears to regard as the ultimate source on the subject of Iranian fatwas in general and the "alleged fatwa" against nuclear weapons in particular. What Kessler did not tell his readers, however, is that Khalaji's employer, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a pro-Israel think tank spun off from AIPAC itself, can hardly be considered a disinterested or objective source on the issue of Khamenei's anti-nuclear fatwa.